Friday, January 27, 2017

I Do Believe They Think I Am Some Sort Of God

Year: 1983
Director: Richard Marquand
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Run Time: 2 hours 11 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Capping off a trilogy is a tricky thing. Indiana Jones did it right, redefining the dynamic by roping in Sean Connery as Indy’s father. But so often a trilogy can descend into silly spectacle like Scream 3 or fade into relative anonymity like The Godfather: Part III. And how does one expect to follow two pristine entries like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back? It’s a challenging proposition, so I don’t blame George Lucas & Co. for not really trying.

Ya burnt! Let’s get into my justification before the people with pitchforks find out where I live.

For the first time in the trilogy, things pick up more or less where they left off. Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is still frozen in carbonite, providing the sluglike crime boss Jabba the Hutt’s (Larry Ward) walls with quite the conversation piece. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is still in love with him for no discernible reason. And Luke (Mark Hamill) is still a whiny spacebaby, only now he styles himself as a Jedi Knight, despite never actually having finished his training with the ailing Yoda (Frank Oz). They rescue Han from Jabba’s wretched hive of scum and villainy, and rejoin the Rebellion to aid their mission to stop the Empire from completing work on a brand new Death Star.

Luke’s true test of becoming a Jedi master begins here: will he succumb to his hate and anger and become a pawn of Darth Vader (David Prowse body, James Earl Jones VO) and the wicked Emperor (Ian McDiarmid)? Or will he find the light and hope and crap that will guide him to the right side of the Force? A battle ensues on and in orbit of the forest moon of Endor, with Han, Leia, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) fighting alongside a native tribe of teddy bears called Ewoks (Warwick Davis and a bunch of other people) to shut down the shield surrounding the star and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) leading the space battle above, because I guess he was the only named character they had left and Obi Wan’s ghost (Alec Guinness) wasn’t gonna do it, as much as his death entirely fails to hamper his presence in the material world.

In another life, George Lucas probably would have been a ghost hunter.

Return of the Jedi has been the subject of much fan derision over the years. “The Ewoks are stupid! It’s just another Death Star!” I have an equally low opinion of the film, but for almost entirely different reasons. Although I agree that the Ewoks are poorly executed with their stiff, unmoving plastic surgery lips, their presence grants us a reprieve from the biggest weakness of Jedi: the human characters.

Luke, Leia, and Han Solo have never had particularly interesting arcs, because they’ve never really been asked to. But all of a sudden, it’s the end of a trilogy. Some kind of arc needs to be fulfilled, so the trio is tossed into a character development blender set to warp speed. Luke especially gets hit full in the face with his so-called emotional journey, squashed into the “inner conflict between light and dark” storyline implied by Empire. His endless, tedious exchanges with Darth Vader and the Emperor would be interesting if we had any insight into his character or the struggles this script pretends he has, but it’s just a mountain of New Age Forcebabble with completely incomprehensible stakes.

Return of the Jedi also lurches from a major gearshift tonally. Where Luke’s half of the story grows more needlessly serious and introspective, the rest of the film descends into the lunatic chaos of a cartoon. Yes, the Ewoks are a symptom of this, but they’re by a wide margin less irritating than Jabba the Hutt’s cabal of snickering evil puppets, which look like rejected goblins from Labyrinth. Or the dastardly calliope score. Or the hyperbolic screams every unnamed character seems to give whenever they’re knocked over.

But I kind of loved those screams, so I won’t dwell on that.

It’s taken me about a week to crank this review out, because I just can’t find it in my heart to give a crap about Return of the Jedi. It’s a thin endcap to a massive franchise, and that’s fine. It does enough to not stomp all over the massive legacy of Star Wars, both as a special effects spectacle (the land speeder chase on Endor is beyond reproach, even if it has some shaky rear projection) and as a blockbuster titan (They may not be up to much this time around, but there mere presence of the returning characters is magnetic enough to overcome that; and John Williams is mostly coasting on old compositions, but what compositions they are!) but it’s really just not that good.

I hate to say it, but it’s true. Return of the Jedi is all over the place, shoving characters into and out of its lopsided narrative at random (poor Boba Fett – I’ve never understood exactly why the bounty hunter who appears in five minutes of Empire is so darn-tootin’ popular, but he deserves better than the Three Stooges demise he’s handed here), lurching through a truncated repeat of the Death Star plot, and ladling a heavy second helping of family lineage intrigue that drowns continuity. It’s still Star Wars, so it’s at least an engaging popcorn space adventure, but Return of the Jedi was the first time the series showed signs that not every entry in the canon was going to be an out-and-out masterpiece.

TL;DR: Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is a tonally imbalanced, childish conclusion to an otherwise terrific trilogy.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 972
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (Marquand, 1983)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)

Monday, January 23, 2017

Well Princess, It Looks Like You Managed To Keep Me Here A While Longer

Year: 1980
Director: Irvin Kershner
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher
Run Time: 2 hours 4 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

Our continued journey into the original Star Wars trilogy has immediately taken us from one of the most incalculably important blockbuster films of all time to the pinnacle of sequeldom: one of the few part 2’s that most cinephiles agree is an improvement on the original. Whether or not I subscribe to that belief will soon be revealed…

Not that it actually matters in the grand scheme of things.

The Empire Strikes Back (or Star Wars: Episode V, as the opening crawl would proudly and befuddlingly proclaim) gets right to the point, now that all the pesky mythmaking has been dispensed of in Star Wars (now retconned with the pointless subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope – Big Brother insists it has always been this way). We join our hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) at the Rebel stronghold on the ice planet Hoth. The Empire discovers their whereabouts and the forces flee after a battle that boldly insists that, where Star wars was a dazzling spectacle the likes of which you’d never seen before, this was turning things up to 11.

After the battle, Luke takes droid pal R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to the swamp planet Dagobah to train to be a Jedi master under the tutelage of Yoda (Frank Oz). Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who wanted to ditch the Rebels long ago, finds himself tasked with evading Imperial forces, towing along Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), and reluctant love interest Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). They eventually converge when it comes time to battle the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse body, James Earl Jones voice).

Watch out, Luke! He’s armed with a light saber and Larry Springer test results!

This is easily the shortest Star Wars plot summary I’ve ever written, and for good reason. There’s really not a hell of a lot of story here, as the film divides most of its time between the swashbuckling radio serial adventures of the Millennium Falcon crew and Luke’s spiritual journey in the swamp. Both of these halves are strong and have their own unique merits, but by the end they fail to cohere into something resembling a distinct storyline. The Empire Strikes Back is the interstitial link between the first and last entries in a trilogy, and it really feels like it.

But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Star Wars movies just don’t have very solid plotting, so this is pretty much par for the course. The real sin in this narrative is committed on Princess Leia, who has had a spine-ectomy in the years between A New Hope and now, converting from a headstrong, silver-tongued firecracker to a cooing damsel in distress opposite Harrison Ford, with whom we’re begged to believe she has chemistry. It might be the result of the performances or just the profound chastity of the Star Wars universe, but the only sparks that are flying here are from Chewbacca repairing the warp drive.

Sorry, guys. I’m sure you can find a nice, cheap pitchfork sharpener on Amazon.

But Star Wars has never been about story. It’s about a universe, and boy does Empire build on what is mostly implied by Star Wars. We explore the meaning of the Force more, yeah yeah whatever (the magic powers are cool, but I’m sick of ancient yogis trying to convince Luke not to use his awesome laser sword to slice the crap out of everything), but we also get to really stretch our limbs and see what majestic planets and mighty creatures it has to offer.

The sheer ambition of Empire is astonishing, but by pushing the envelope even further, it also opened itself up to more effects that didn’t quite age well. Honestly the proportion of stiff puppets of obvious rear projection shots is probably slightly higher than the relatively low budget original, but on that same token its successes are much more resounding. The cloud city of Bespen, the asteroid cluster, the swamps of Dagobah, and the chilly wasteland of Hoth are realized in grand Space Opera fashion.

And now that George Lucas has stepped down from his wobbly director’s chair, boy does the action sing. From the get-go there’s much more movement clarity and geographical precision in the flying battles: You can actually tell who’s in which ship, what exactly they’re doing, and what direction the lasers are firing (from which cannon), which is invaluable fuel to get your heart pumping. And when the film’s climactic light saber battle arrives, all caution is thrown to the wind. It’s a glorious sequence, a broadly expansive bit of light-show combat through the steam-filled underbelly of Bespen that is the single most visually striking scene in the entire trilogy, making expert use of color, light, and the camera in addition to its groundbreaking effects, something the films so frequently forget to do.


So, there you have it. The Empire Strikes Back polishes the gem that was Star Wars into a dazzling sparkle of adventure cinema. It builds on that already iconic universe (as does John Williams with his score, heaping even more bombastic themes into the mix) and bestows it with actual filmmaking skill in addition to fine technical craftsmanship.

Unfortunately, this comes at the expense of the already weak characters. They drift aimlessly though the beautifully environs of this movie, hardly even trying to glom onto a morsel of an arc or – heaven forbid – a sustained conflict. And Mark Hamill slips to the back of the acting pack with an explosive overreaction in an iconic moment. Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. Luckily Yoda is a solid clean-up hitter, bringing an indelible Frank Oz energy that makes the Hamill scenes not only watchable but incredibly fun.

So, is Empire Strikes Back better than Star Wars? In many quadrants, it’s an unequivocal improvement. But in just as many, it doesn’t capture quite the same scrappy magic. For me personally, it’s still a toss-up, but a good one. Both are incredible works of blockbuster filmmaking that I’m grateful have brought so much joy to so many people around the world.

TL;DR: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is a bigger, not necessarily better, but equally impressive sequel.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1062
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (Kershner, 1980)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)

Friday, January 20, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: You'll Never Go Back

In which we review two horror films directed by African-Americans covered on month 5 of Scream 101 season 2.

Blacula (Listen to our episode right here.)

Year: 1972
Director: William Crain
Cast: William Marshall, Vonetta McGee, Denise Nicholas 
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

The African prince Mamuwalde is turned into a bloodsucking monster by Dracula himself, and two centuries later he is released upon 1970’s Los Angeles to pursue the reincarnation of his lost love while a police medical official investigates the sudden spike in local murders.

Mixing Blaxploitation with 70’s horror wouldn’t necessarily seem like a recipe for success, unless you’re a cult film obsessive like Yours Truly. Well, it turns out the naysayers were wrong, because Blacula is kind of incredible. It won’t knock your socks off with pure terror, being as it is a low budget shocker from the pre-Exorcist era of 1972, but it’s – like – alarmingly good.

Sure, there is still plenty of high camp on offer here. I won’t pretend there isn’t. There’s a character named Skillet for crying out loud, but it’s all part of the fun. Blacula is one of those perfect time capsule films, as many low budget horror flicks tend to be. When you’re working on the cheap, filmmakers tend to have actors bring their own clothes and use real life locations that are readily available, and this peek through the lens into black culture of the early 70’s is remarkable. And there’s an ebullient performance of the song “There He is Again” by The Hues Corporation that I wouldn’t trade for the world.

But there’s a point about ten minutes in where everything changes. You’re basking in the stilted acting and the too-sweaty lead, expecting a minor fillip of 70’s camp detritus, but then that opening credits sequence hits, and you realize something monumentally important. Somebody out there really cared about making Blacula. This hand-drawn sequence is an utterly terrific stylized dance between a blood drop shaped like a woman and a staking bat flapping behind her. It’s perfectly, exhilaratingly James Bondian. This isn’t the kind of thing you commission for a tossed-off hack job.

And then the movie kicks into high gear, commenting on the black experience in a white-dominated society, where anyone black (or gay – although Blacula doesn’t treat them well, it’s inclusive enough to depict an interracial same-sex couple without much hemming and hawing) is pretty much already treated like a monster. Sure, it makes plenty of puns on the word “black” as well, but it has so much more on its mind.

Plus, though the gore is virtually nonexistent minus one gonzo final shot, Blacula’s design is a fun blend of old and new, shaping his afro into a classic vampire widow’s peak and giving him a bizarrely angular set of sideburns that provide him an uncanny, animalistic look.

Look, Blacula ain’t perfect. Its particular vintage will tell you that much, as will the disastrously tinny audio quality. But it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a horror film more than 40 years old that was so effortlessly engrossing and fun to watch, yet still retaining its brain and some sense of dignity.

Rating: 8/10

Tales from the Hood (Listen to our episode right here.)

Year: 1995
Director: Rusty Cundieff
Cast: Clarence Williams III, Corbin Bernsen, Joe Torry 
Run Time: 1 hour 38 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Three urban dealers attempt to pick up drugs from a sinister mortician who tells them four stories about how various corpses wound up dead.

Pretty much intrinsically, anthology films tend to be hit or miss. Often, they’re a collection of loosely linked short films strung together by a gossamer web of an interstitial plot. This is not so in the few masterpieces produced by the subgenre, which tend to have a single director and writer at the helm. This was the case with the George Romero-Stephen King project Creepshow, and I’m pleased as punch to confirm this is also the case with Tales from the Hood, which might just be my favorite anthology film I’ve ever seen.

Before we dig into the meat of each story, let’s look at the film as a whole, which – delightfully – Tales from the Hood actively invites us to do. The four stories are integrated with the main plot in such an organic way, it shakes off the lethargy of many anthologies, which dive mindlessly into story after story. Here, each tale feeds thematically (and eventually directly) into the development of the characters in the interstitial plot, to the point that it becomes a full, engaging story of its own. 

The entire movie is a heavy-handed but delightful exploration of black social issues including police brutality and the vicious cycle of black-on-black violence (Spike Lee produced this film, surprise surprise), but in the process it also tells lever, engaging horror stories so it’s certainly the best of both worlds. And Clarence Williams III gives the Cryptkeeper a run for his money as the bombastically campy yet sinister horror host. 

Let’ run through those segments real quick, shall we?

“Rogue Cop Revelation”

A Story that rings even truer today than in 1995, this tale of a black activist murdered by the police is a classic story of revenge served cold… as the grave. Following a powerfully brutal opening, this segment becomes an incredible effects showcase, including a clever design communing organic material with drug paraphernalia. It’s sleek, simple, and effective.

“Boys Do Get Bruised”

Probably the best segment of the entire film, this story hinges on a reveal that’s a little too obvious, but it’s a tale of suburban terror that calls to mind the best of Wes Craven, again leading up to a showstopping display of cartoonishly gruesome special effects.

“KKK Comeuppance”

Another story that pricks even more sharply today. An ex-KKK member is running for governor. This one fills in the requisite “evil doll” slot with another astonishing effects bonanza: this time an effortless integration of live action and stop motion.

“Hard-Core Convert”

Although this is by far the worst of the film’s four segments, it really put the film’s overarching themes through their paces. A flop sweat-fueled Clockwork Orange story about gang violence, it suffers from an extended, extremely annoying strobe effect during a key emotional scene and ends poorly, but at least it’s short.

These four segments combine into one dazzling whole, a politically-minded EC Comics throwback with real talent behind the wheel. The effects are, as I mentioned, spectacular, as is Christopher Young’s chameleonic score. Tales form the Hood is just plain fun, delivering a po-faced, often harrowing message with buoyant charm.

Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1114

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Q4 2016 Review Purge, Vol. 2

It’s time to clear out more cobwebs from the ol’ backlog of 2016, to create a clean slate ready for Oscar season! So here are some reviews of flicks I watched in December 2016 that weren’t quite so vital to write about in full.

Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale

Year: 2010
Director: Jalmari Helander
Cast: Jorma Tommila, Peeter Jakobi, Onni Tommila
Run Time: 1 hour 24 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

In a secluded Finish mountain village, a young boy must stop the evil original Santa Claus from being unleashed upon his friends by a nearby mountaintop dig.

I love me some Christmas horror. There’s something about subverting all the manufactured Hallmark cheeriness of the season that appeals to me, and it helps that I genuinely love the holiday itself. But I genuinely wasn’t prepared for Rare Exports, a Finnish Christmas fairy tale with an unusually somber tone. It’s a stab at Guillermo del Toro-esque weight and spectacle that doesn’t seem fitting of the down-and-dirty genre that brought us Jack Frost and Santa’s Slay.

That tone is what allows it to stand out from the crowd, as well as its focus on a type of rural mountain community not normally seen in Hollywood cinema. The realism with which it presents the struggles of the townsfolk, which are getting tougher around Christmastime even without the invasion of a killer Santa, is outstanding. But the unfortunate fact is that these things are exactly what prevent it from being a particularly great Christmas horror film. The intent is spectacular, but the execution is rather lackluster, holding off on horror for a pretty dull 45 minutes of setup and throttling the film’s chances for entertainment with an overserious tone.

Fortunately, when the horror does kick in, it centers on a truly uncanny image that overcomes the abrasive protagonists (who accidentally trap what they believe to be an employee of the dig site and almost instantly decide to prod him with sticks and hold him hostage – delightful!), the jumps in logic, and the rather silly denouement. That image is of a silent, naked old man who crouches in the shadows, unmoving. It’s a sight that chills the spine enough that it doesn’t thaw until the credits roll.

And, to be fair, the silly finale is a tremendous bit of fun that leads to a charming concluding punchline. It just doesn’t necessarily feel like a natural extension of the almost neorealist goings-on that propel the first half of the movie. Visually speaking, Rare Exports is well made (especially a wonderful bit of business with the recurring image of an advent calendar), and the actors are decent, but the tone and the pacing are just a little too wonky to wholeheartedly recommend.

Rare Exports won’t be entering my Christmas season rotation, but it’s at least an interesting curio that I don’t regret watching. It’s a slice of sub-del Toro fairy tale fruitcake with an uncanny confidence in its own construction.

Rating: 6/10

The Color Purple

Year: 1985
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Danny Glover, Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey
Run Time: 2 hours 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

In the South in the early 1900’s, Celie is married off to an abusive husband and relies on the strength of the women in her life to survive.

You couldn’t pay me to even pretend I care more about Steven Spielberg’s serious movies. I’m a Jurassic Park and Indiana Jones kind of guy. I’ve never seen Lincoln or Schindler’s List and I’m happy to let it remain that way. However, attached as I am to a certain drama-loving individual, recently I was given the choice to sit through The Color Purple or face a life of loneliness and regret. I chose the former, and thus was I introduced to Spielberg’s very first foray into the world of prestige drama.

And while the length of this film is indefensible (I could cut at least half an hour without batting an eye), spending time with these characters really did help th efilm grow on me. It doesn’t hurt that this is still a Spielberg movie, so as miserable as the characters’ lives frequently are, it never descends into the ultragrim territory of, say, Precious. And damn, is he a fun director.

The Color Purple might be maudlin as all hell, especially in its third act (a joyful reunion is pockmarked by a woman wearing an enormous flowing cape, for crying out loud), but visually speaking the man knows exactly what he’s doing. Whether it be the way he uses silhouette to portray Celie’s journey and self-identity, the recurring motif that links the sky with freedom, or the decision to stage its grandest scene of female empowerment around a dinner table, it’s clear that a great deal of thought, skill, and care went into this production.

Plus, the story (based on the Alice Walker novel of the same name) is a delicate and earnest tale about women that is still one of the more powerful narratives about female connection and empowerment out there. Although most of the people Celie meets throughout her life start out as enemies or rivals, they slowly realize they share a bond of sisterhood that can never be taken away from them or defined by the male (and white)-dominated society they’re trapped in. It’s wonderful stuff, despite some of Spielberg’s more cartoonish additions (a bar fight scene with Oprah looks like it was lifted straight out of Looney Tunes). Whoopi Goldberg gives an indelible debut performance, giving you intimate access to Celie’s thoughts and feeling using just her marvelously expressive face, the story is uplifting but doesn’t shy away from cold reality, and it’s good enough to forgive that grotesquely bloated run time. If that’s not a mark of true quality, I don’t know what is.

Rating: 7/10


Year: 2011
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Aksel Hennie, Synnøve Macody Lund, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

An art thief/corporate recruiter must escape from an implacable assassin.

I should probably expand my scope a little before I make this assertion, but as far as I can tell, I love Norwegian movies. From films like Cold Prey or Dead Snow, it seems like the entire country has been gobbling up American genre films for decades until deciding in a snap that they can make some themselves. And they’re better. I can now expand this theory from sci-fi/horror to the action/thriller genre as well. Passengers director Morten Tyldum’s adaption of Jo Nesbø’s best-selling novel Headhunters is – put simply – a high-octane treat.

Although it’s a simple, snappy little crime thriller, it benefits from its European flavor. First of all, the lead isn’t preposterously handsome and debonair. He’s a regular Joe (or Jo) who just happens to be very good at stealing art. His lack of perfection makes his predicament seem that much more dangerous, because you’re not so certain that he can Jason Statham his way out of trouble. Plus, there’s a certain blasé attitude toward nudity and violence that makes the whole thing feel more visceral and human. While the filmmaking itself is very polished, the people and circumstances are not, giving it an edge that it wields like a razor-sharp blade.

I can’t say that I have much in particular to write about Headhunters, because it’s an elemental – almost primal – narrative, except to say that it’s a well-oiled machine. Every genre element is in the perfect position to keep your heart pumping along to its electric rhythm. It’s an exciting, harrowing, twisty, frequently gross tale of the lengths one man will go for survival. It has a James Bondian attitude toward women, which is always unfortunate, but it is what it is. And what it is is very captivating.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 1298

Monday, January 16, 2017

And Another Thing...

For the past few years, I have faced a dreadful conundrum: How can I reconcile my love of reviewing movies with my desire to work in the movie industry? Critics aren’t exactly beloved in Hollywood, and for good reason. So, as my life progresses, I’ve come to a decision that will affect major changes on this blog’s content, though not – I hope – its quality.

I’m going to stop reviewing current movies.

Well, mostly. We’ll still be covering certain modern releases on my podcast, Scream 101. And if something really strikes my fancy like a La La Land or a Mad Max: Fury Road, I’ll be compelled to jot down a few words. But it’s a futile exercise for me to pan the work of other people also trying to make it in the industry. That’s just not fair.

That doesn’t mean my blog will become all sunshine and rainbows. Hell, no. I’m still the opinionated crackpot I’ve always been, but those opinions will be relegated to more retro films and nothing before – let’s say – 2010 or so. I won’t be touching the reviews I’ve already written, but henceforward the current release posts will be few and far between. Although I'll probably have monthly updates on what's good in theaters (hint: not The Bye Bye Man). And that doesn’t mean you still won’t be getting a whopper of an end-of-the-year list.

This is actually very exciting for me. I’ll be able to enjoy movies in the theater without feeling obligated to take notes. And that will open up the pages of this blog to new features I’ve been itching to try out, like director retrospectives, the unclogging of Census Bloodbath, and maybe – just maybe - the successful return of Fright Flashback.

Again, thank you for bearing with me during this transitional period. If you want to continue reading my thoughts on contemporary releases, only with much more brevity, please feel free to follow my exploits on Letterboxd.
Word Count: 331

Thursday, January 12, 2017

We Meet Again At Last

Year: 1977
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher 
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG

2016 was such a rough year for celebrity deaths that it was practically impossible to find the time to pay tribute to all of them. As I continue to spend January sifting through the wreckage of the year that was and creating a clean slate for a year that will require everything that I’ve got, here begins our belated, beloved tribute to the late, great Carrie Fisher.

Plus, it’s probably a crime that I’ve written a movie blog for three years and haven’t covered the original Star Wars trilogy yet.

So, Star Wars. A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away and all that. Never have I felt more impotent as a reviewer, because first of all there’s no way anyone reading this needs to be persuaded as to whether or not to watch the movie. Second of all, even if you haven’t seen it, there’s almost no reason to include a plot summary because there may not be a person in the world who doesn’t at least know the broad strokes of the story. I’m watching these with a person who has never seen them before (a delicacy in this day and age) and a week ago he could have told you just as much about Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and their lineage as he can today. But format dictates a summary, so here we go.

The evil Empire is developing a planet-killing weapon for which Felicity Jones and other Rebel troops have obtained the secret plans. These have landed in the hands of one Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher, may she rest in peace), right before her ship comes under attack by imperial baddie Darth Vader (David Prowse with VO by James Earl Jones). She quickly hides the plans in the droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker, may he also rest in peace) and bids him to use an escape pod to flee the ship with his partner C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). Thus they land on Tatooine (though, to my knowledge, the planet’s name isn’t given in the movie), where they are brought into the service of lonely farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

The Empire’s search for the plans forces Luke out of his home and he teams up with his only hope, Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, who must have owed somebody a favor) to get the plans to the planet Alderaan. To this end they hire smuggler pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his first mate, the furry Wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They embark on a swashbuckling adventure to save the princess, deliver the plans, and take down the Empire’s Death Star once and for all.

Or rather, once.

What’s most remarkable to me about Star Wars (please note that I’m reviewing the Despecialized Edition, as close to the original theatrical release as it’s possible to get) is how it’s simultaneously small-scale and the biggest thing imaginable. Writer-director George Lucas crams an entire universe of history, religion, and culture into a relatively simple story: a moody rural teen wants to get out into the world and go to space college, but instead he gets swept into some grand derring-do. I’m a little annoyed they name drop the Clone Wars, thus cementing them permanently into the canon, but the vast universe alluded to in the dialogue is a marvel of blockbuster world-building.

Which leads us directly into my second favorite thing about the Star Wars universe. This stuff looks old. We’re not living in a shiny, pristine Star Trek utopia. This all happened a long time ago, and all this “futuristic” technology was developed even longer ago than that. The props are battered and the sets are caked with sand and dirt, as if they’ve really existed for all this them. The implied history present in just the background of Star Wars is jaw-dropping.

Though, whether or not I actually want to HEAR about that history in detail is another question entirely.

Yeah, I can’t say that the extended Star Wars universe is a thing of glory, but the implication of it provides for an epic, large scale cinematic experience that is entirely unassailable. And what an experience Star Wars is! It’s one of the films that ushered in the modern blockbuster era, and there’s not a shred of doubt why. It’s perhaps the most groundbreaking work of special effects magic ever conceived. Obviously, considering it was released in 1977, some effects haven’t aged well (like the dime store werewolf chatting with the criminal element of the Mos Eisley Cantina), but the true marvel is in just how much hasn't aged.

Star Wars’ ability to get you to accept the tactile reality of space is damn uncanny. Watching the final Death Star battle, you find yourself questioning absolutely nothing, a remarkable achievement of model work that is still unparalleled. Sure the computer readouts are 70’s monochrome displays, but the TIE fighters rushing through a dizzy starscape are timeless.

The effects breathe life into the film, as exemplified by one of my favorite characters: R2-D2. The fact that it’s even possible to craft a loveable figure who can only communicate through beeps and a flashing light is in itself a testament to the filmmaking prowess at work here. Through dialogue, Kenny Baker’s impeccable physical performance, and the work of the effects team that allows the unit to move freely, it’s almost frighteningly easy to be convinced that this is an actual robot with its own autonomy.

And f**king John Williams, man. The fact that he threw his all into this ludicrous sci-fi project about a walking carpet fighting a giant space ball that shoots lasers changed everything. Although his best compositions are yet to come (his iconic imperial march doesn’t debut until the next one, believe it or not), the lush, instantly iconic orchestral score lends Star Wars a gravity that buffers it against criticism that it shouldn’t be considered a legitimate entry into the pantheon of cinema art.

There are VERY few orchestral compositions that can provoke audiences of all ages to spontaneously applaud.

But Brennan, what of those characters that populate this despicably well-realized world? What of that intricate Star Wars plotting? I’m about to drop a harsh truth on you guys. Star Wars movies almost never have good plots. Here Luke is bustled through a fairly basic adventure narrative that’s easy enough to follow, but there’s so much spectacle, his arc from farm boy to Rebel hero is shoved into the shadows. He’s an archetype and so are his friends, so the film never really feels the need to bother with them.

The acting is likewise exactly what it needs to be. Although the costume performers Mayhew, Daniels, Baker, and even Earl Jones to an extent must and do give nuanced performances that lend credibility to very physical roles, nobody human is giving a truly great performance, with the exception of maybe Alec Guinness. But that’s not what Star Wars is about. The sheer craft on display here is utterly indispensible, and although I don’t consider myself in the thrall of the magnetic pull the franchise has on movie fanboys, there’s no denying that the original Star Wars is a work of mad creative genius.

However, George Lucas the director is far less sure of himself than George Lucas the showman. He very publicly couldn’t give a crap about the people onscreen, but the light saber battle that caps off the second act of this film is a bit stilted, edited in a shapeless jumble. The only things that carry that nigh-on incomprehensible scene are the stellar effects and the sound design. It’s Star Wars in a microcosm, riddled with filmic flaws but compensated for mightily by pure movie magic.

TL;DR: Star Wars is a masterpiece of special effects spectacle that earns its incredibly high place in the cinematic pantheon.
Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1327
Reviews In This Series
Star Wars (Lucas, 1977)
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015)
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Edwards, 2016)
Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (Johnson, 2017)
Solo: A Star Wars Story (Howard, 2018)

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Arrow in the Head: Go to Hell

Year: 2017
Director: Ben Browder
Cast: Sammi Hanratty, Sean Astin, Gina Gershon
Run Time: 1 hour 40 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Read my full review at Arrow in the Head.

Additional Notes: Seriously, Sean Astin is truly great in this. It’s almost like he thought he was shooting a real movie. I have a weird relationship with the Bad Kids Go to Hell movies, because even though the emphatically suck, they have a manic desperation to be liked that I respond to. And hey, Bad Kids of Crestview Academy is at least a mild improvement, making it the Empire Strikes Back of Breakfast Club slashers.

TL;DR: Bad Kids of Crestview Academy is a crappy B-movie, but its commitment to bad taste is captivating and energetic.
Rating: 5/10
Word Count: 810
Reviews In This Series
Bad Kids Go to Hell (Spradlin, 2012)
Bad Kids of Crestview Academy (Browder, 2017)

Monday, January 9, 2017

Moving Right Along...

Howdy, folks! It's time for some quick Brennan news! Today is my first day at a new job I'm very excited about, interning at Blumhouse Productions has been responsible for a lot of the horror content of the last few years, including the Paranormal Activity and Insidious films, and their web site is a repository of all sorts of horror discussion.

I'm really eager to get started, but this also means that I'll be transitioning out of writing news for Arrow in the Head over the next few weeks. That doesn't mean I'll be gone completely, but I'm still defining where I'll be with them. I'm just letting you guys know everything that's going on! I think this shift will have a negligible impact on how frequently I update Popcorn Culture, but the next couple weeks might get a little on-and-off as I find my feet. Plus, I'm officiating a wedding this week, so that's a wee bit distracting.

Thank you everyone for bearing with me! Here's a quick list for your enjoyment. Although Blumhouse is a household name in horror, they have their fingers in all sorts of pies...

5 Films You Probably Didn't Know Were Made by Blumhouse

#5 The Normal Heart (2014)

I did compare The Normal Heart to a body horror film thanks to its terrifying depiction of disease, but Ryan Murphy's AIDS drama is definitely a surprise from the Blumhouse team. It was also my #6 film of 2014!

#4 The Jinx (2015)

Another project that's tangentially horror, Blumhouse was behind the groundbreaking documentary about wealthy murderer Robert Durst that eventually got him arrested.

#3 Whiplash (2014)

Damien Chazelle's debut film Whiplash was a Blumhouse Production, so you have them to thank for the glory that is La La Land.

#2 Jem and the Holograms (2015)

Maybe they don't want to be reminded they made Jem and the Holograms, but glittery girl pop musicals are the farthest genre I could imagine them exploring, and boy am I glad they did.

#1 Tooth Fairy (2010)

That's right, before Blumhouse found their horror niche, they threw a lot of spaghetti at the wall, and one of those noodles was this vehicle for The Rock in which he turns into the Tooth Fairy for some reason. Who knew?
Word Count: 379

Friday, January 6, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: Q4 2016 Review Purge

In which I muck out my annual New Year’s backlog with mini-reviews of 2016 movies that just barely missed the cut.


Year: 2016
Director: Morten Tyldum
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen
Run Time: 1 hour 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

Two interstellar travelers are awoken from cryosleep 90 years before they reach their destination.

Passengers doesn’t know what it is. Is it a chamber piece about human durability? Is it a romance about how the love between two people can overcome all obstacles? Is it a soft sci-fi action film about two people stranded in the cold expanse of space? Passengers at times attempts to be any and all of these things, but here’s the secret. I know what it is: It’s a feature-length Apple commercial.

OK, not literally. Literally it’s a feature-length Sony commercial, as evidenced by some truly hilarious intergalactic product placement. But what I mean by this is that Passengers is full of immaculate creamy white textures and burbling electronic music, is exceedingly pleasant, and lingers in the memory for exactly 0.35 seconds. This ain’t a bad thing. An unchallenging film is sometimes just what you need, and the simplicity of Passengers allows it to act as a clear lens, magnifying the heat of the two stars burning bright at its center.

Sure, it’s stupid. Its infrequent feints into action territory come at the expense of any sort of logic or coherence, and its finale is mind-numbingly implausible. But it takes itself lightly enough that the goofy excess becomes joyful sci-fi window dressing, a loopy analogue to the struggle of the two characters at its heart. And Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence are good in this movie, insofar as they just stand still and emit charisma as good movie stars are able to do.

Basically, whenever Passengers tries to have a plot, it threatens to rattle apart (especially during moments of Weyland Utani-esque foreshadowing that thud to the floor like it’s an electromagnet and go absolutely nowhere). But it excels at big, sloppy sci-fi spectacle, especially during the occasional moments where it remembers that gravity in space is like, kinda funky.

It’s shallow, but it’s far from a waste of time. And as loathe as I am to admit it, Thomas Newman’s score – which feels a little like it was written for a silicon valley corporate training video – stirred something in my godforsaken, electro-loving soul. Passengers is probably your best bet in theaters right now if you’ve already caught up with Rogue One and Moana and want to spend an evening away from the cold.

Rating: 7/10

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Year: 2016
Director: Taika Waititi
Cast: Sam Neill, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata 
Run Time: 1 hour 41 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A man and his foster son get lost in the New Zealand bush, inciting a nationwide manhunt that propels them to hide out in the wilderness.

Remind me again why the don’t set all fairy tales in New Zealand? Hunt for the Wilderpeople takes after Lord of the Rings as a visual exploration of just how f**king majestic the New Zealand landscape can be, and although it’s set in our reality it becomes just as riveting a fantasy. It doesn’t seek to pull away from its storybook influences at all. Hell, there are chapter titles dividing up the ten major segments. This is a daggum fairy tale and it is gorgeous.

In essence, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a tale of two dissimilar people who are thrown together to become unlikely friends, but it’s so much more than that. Sometimes it’s a wry, silly adventure movie with a child’s sense of wonder. Sometimes it’s a scalpel-sharp satire about societal norms and what constitutes a traditional family. Sometimes it’s a lush, large-scale epic with Tangerine Dream-esque synth cues quivering over the soundtrack. It’s a lot of things, but what they all have in common is that they’re pretty brilliant. 

Sam Neil has played a curmudgeon who needs to open his heart to a child before and he does it well here, but as a scene partner, Julian Dennison blows Jurassic Park’s Lexi and Tim out of the water like they’re rubber ducks. The young actor perfectly captures the character’s arc, nailing the nuance of his prickly exterior and displaying a world of pain and emoting on his face as he slowly lets his guard down. And comic timing must be genetic, because someone should have suffered through decades of training to be able to deliver jokes that well.

Oh yeah, did I mention this film was funny? It’s earnest and fantastical with the occasional sharp edge, but it’s also downright hilarious. Every character is a tile in a perfect mosaic, and every piece is in its place to deliver a wonderful cinematic experience. It’s rare that you see such sharp comedy paired with equally luscious visuals, but Taika Waititi is working magic here. It’s just a delightful film, and you should definitely make seeking it out a priority.

Rating: 9/10


Year: 2016
Director: Marcin Wrona
Cast: Itay Tiran, Agnieszka Zulewska, Andrzej Grabowski 
Run Time: 1 hour 34 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A man becomes possessed by a dybbuk on the evening of his wedding.

For hardcore film fans, the final week of December is known as “cram week,” where we scramble to watch all the films of the year that we missed in order to properly flesh out our Top 10 lists (and, as you might notice, mine in particular requires a lot of fleshing out). I discovered that essentially my entire cram list was made up of foreign films, which makes sense because they’re not so easy to find in your local Cineplex: Japan’s Sadako vs. Kayako, Norway’s The Wave, South Korea’s The Wailing… But at the expense of the others, I chose a Polish export called Demon and here’s why.

1) It’s a tale about a dybbuk, a Jewish demon that doesn’t get much coverage in modern horror. 2) As arthousey as it looked, it also seemed like it would be a devastatingly chilling slow burn. And 3) First-time director Marcin Wrona committed suicide at the festival where this film debuted, and I wanted to honor his fist and last film. Plus, that story is so macabre and tragic, it’s like catnip for the horror community.

Let’s address the elephant in the room right off the bat: Demon is barely a horror film. Frankly, there’s more comedy than there is horror (pretty solid comedy at that, especially involving the drunkard town doctor and an impatient priest), but neither tone is sustained for too long either way. Demon is a very European film, content to glower at its audience with pallid, grey cinematography and a snail’s sense of pacing and dialogue.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The subtextual layering of Demon is phenomenal, beginning with the stress of going through an intense personal crisis on a day where you’re the center of attention and ending at a truly devastating reflection on the erasure of Jewish culture in Poland, a society still shattered by the lingering effects of the Holocaust (delivered in a heart-wrenching moment by an otherwise unassuming wedding guest who subtly emerges as the best performer of the entire piece.) It’s like being pummeled by a swinging log. There are long periods where nothing is touching you, then – WHAM! – the impact crushes you with freight train force.

Demon does very many things well, but they’re scattered throughout a story that feels rather aimless. It’s ambiguous and opaque in a way that seems almost aggressive, and the truly stellar moments are few and far between. While I was affected by these moments, I don’t feel like I can reasonably recommend the movie and the effort it requires to sift through its tonal doldrums. Still, it’s something you don’t see every day and I’m glad I had the opportunity.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1325

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Popcorn Kernels: I'm Dreaming Of A White Castle

In which John Cho’s constant cameos during our American Pie marathon inspired me to finally sit down and watch the Harold & Kumar trilogy for the first time. Please enjoy this triple-decker review.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle

Year: 2004
Director: Danny Leiner
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 28 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Stoned roommates Harold and Kumar get a mad craving for White Castle burgers, but their food run becomes a nightlong adventure past various obstacles.

I think maybe I like stoner comedies. I know, it’s a surprise to me too, but I guess it’s only a half step away from my most secretly beloved genre of college movies. Or maybe I just really like the work of Danny Leiner, who began his reign over the form with Dude, Where’s My Car?. Harold & Kumar is actually very similar, spinning a wacky odyssey out of a very low-stakes motivation, but if anything it’s an improvement. That R-rating allows his characters to actually smoke pot, for one (Seann William Scott and Ashton Kutcher seemed more like lazy dopes than actual stoners), but he’s also honed his penchant for absurdist comedy, cutting the fat that bogged down DWMC’s more out-there moments.

Like any good road trip movie, Harold & Kumar lives and dies on its cameos. Obviously Neil Patrick Harris is the standout, throwing himself full bore into the role of a lifetime: a twisted, nightmare version of himself, before that kind of thing became more commonplace. But I’m loathe to shift the focus from the movie’s battalion of other great side characters, including Christopher Meloni strutting his stuff as the extravagantly weird Freakshow (that dude’s timing is so sharp it could draw blood) or Ryan Reynolds as a male nurse chewing the hell out of lines that any other actor would have just blandly recited. They’re both perfect fits for this comedy universe in which the real world tilts into the cartoonish as often as possible (a raccoon literally pulls a Bugs Bunny move at one point and it is glorious).

But in addition to being funny in increasingly sophomoric ways, Harold & Kumar actually has a brain in its head. At first I marveled at the incredible diversity in the cast of the film (the Korean and Indian leads are patently not white, nor are the Hispanic and Asian love interests), but it quickly becomes apparent that this is all in service to a satirical skewering of ethnic stereotypes, eventually diving into white rejection of immigrants and racial profiling in the police system. This is no accident, and the fact that for at least a third of its run time, it’s devoted to humor (good humor, at that) revolving around topical racial issues is remarkable.

Once again, there’s a heady undercurrent of unfortunate homophobia, but at least here it serves as a series of character-based gags that build on one another to complement the wacky world our stoners inhabit. If you’re gonna be wrong, this is the right way to do it. Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is an astoundingly fun motion picture, if you have the constitution to survive some truly gross scatological humor. Luckily I do, and I hope you do too because this flick is a real laid-back treat.

Rating: 8/10

Harold & Kumar Escape Guantanamo Bay

Year: 2008
Director: Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

A mishap on an airplane gets Harold and Kumar sent to Guantanamo. They escape and embark on a road trip across the American South to clear their names and just maybe stop the wedding of Kumar’s ex-girlfriend.

The only strange thing about the fact that the surprise hit Harold & Kumar garnered a sequel is that it took them four whole years to make it. Thus we jump from 2004 to 2008 and find ourselves in a very different political climate, even though the film ostensibly takes place that same week, back in 2004. We as a nation had picked up the pieces of our shattered post-9/11 confidence and had slowly turned against Our Leader George W. Bush and his War on Terror. People were tentatively starting to listen to the Dixie Chicks again, and in this fertile loam Harold & Kumar sprouted from a subtle racial satire to a full-blown exploration of terrorist panic, government incompetence, Islamophobia, and ethnic stereotypes all across the board.

It might still be dumb, scatological stoner comedy, but its sheer political audacity is stunning. And a lot of it works. Rob Corddry’s inept government agent is a miracle of over-the-top humor (perfectly paired with Ed Helms in a standout scene), the inevitable return of Neil Patrick Harris as a twisted funhouse mirror version of himself takes the indecency to dizzy new heights, and the film doesn’t even let its own protagonists off the hook as Harold and Kumar perform their own set of woeful racial assumptions and miscalculations. And a review that fails to laud Christopher Meloni’s gut-busting contributions as a KKK Grand Wizard caricature is a review I don’t want to be a part of.

Unfortunately, these new balls of steel create a bit of drag now that the film carries the added weight of the inevitable comedy sequel diminishing returns. Two already not great gags from the original are dredged up once more in flatly unfunny recurring bits, and the gay panic and poop jokes are both more abundant and more deeply wearisome. And while I enjoy most of what the film does with its hyperbolic humor, one scene in particular (the boys meet an inbred redneck Cyclops baby) pushes things waaay too far, irretrievably breaking whatever reality the film had left.

Plus, frankly, the wedding storyline is tired at best and any time the zany comedy is interrupted for another abortive rom-com sequence, you feel like gouging out your own tongue just for something to do. But as sequels go, Guantanamo Bay strikes a solid-enough balance. It might have deflated somewhat, but it has enough strength to deserve its existence, and its commitment to furthering the surprisingly nuanced social satire of the original is commendable. And damn it, it’s funny. What more do you want from the thing?

Rating: 6/10

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Year: 2011
Director: Todd Strauss-Schulson
Cast: John Cho, Kal Penn, Neil Patrick Harris
Run Time: 1 hour 30 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Harold and Kumar are reunited after several years and team up to find the perfect Christmas tree to impress Harold’s father-in-law.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas doesn’t feel like a Harold & Kumar movie. The stakes are too high, the gags are even more juvenile, and – worst of all – there’s not even a whiff of a Christopher Meloni cameo. This is the most American Pie-y movie in the franchise (no surprise considering that the trilogy screenwriters and Guantanamo Bay directors Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg ditched this film mid-production for American Reunion, handing over the reigns to The Final Girls director Todd Strauss-Schulson) and it doesn’t suit these characters. Nor does their age, which forces them into Apatowian ”manchild learning to grow up” archetypes, in turn cramming their love interests into the even more boring “sweet, innocent, constantly disappointed angel” roles that so ruined Alyson Hannigan’s American Pie arc.

But as much as it’s not a Harold & Kumar movie, it’s still a half-decent R-rated comedy. The plot is functional. The acting is solid (especially Kal Penn, whose understated one-liners are the stuff of legend). And the jokes are kind of dumb, but at least willing to go to refreshing extremes. The 3D gimmick is perhaps too keen to point itself out and never really challenges the format, but at least it shows that this movie was given a healthy budget, which allows it to chase its wackier impulses (including an all-Claymation scene provided by LAIKA and a late moment that’s way gorier than anything cooked up int The Final Girls).

What really makes the film shine is its obligatory Neil Patrick Harris scene, utilizing his newfound megastardom perhaps even better than they managed his career slump back in 2004. He’s always been handed the funniest moments in these movies on a silver platter, but his extended cameo (in which he gets to share the screen with his partner David Burtka, also gleefully subverting his own personality, and perform an immaculate holiday number) is the best in the entire trilogy. If NPH was the only good thing about this film, it would still be eminently watchable, but luckily he’s not.

The absurdity of the in-demand holiday gift Wafflebot, Thomas Lennon bringing a truly bizarre energy as a family man along for the ride, and Kumar’s plan to steal a church’s Christmas tree are equally bizarre delights to be found in this film, which isn’t afraid to go for the brass ring. It doesn’t always manage to grab it (especially in any scene with Danny Trejo as Harold’s father-in-law, who gives maybe the worst performance of his entire career here,), but the fact that it tries is more than enough to keep you going through the weaker patches. It’s a jolly holiday treat, and while I certainly won’t keep it in heavy rotation, I know I’ll slap this DVD on in future holiday celebrations.

Rating: 6/10
Word Count: 1574