Monday, January 30, 2012

Being Fair

Ah, we are getting into the month of February...where romantic comedies abound thanks to Valentine's Day and where other films go to die.  February, like January, has that terrible reputation of being a dumping ground for films studios don't have much faith in.  It should come as no surprise then that, aside from a few annual exceptions, the films released here often get bad reviews.  Notice that I didn't say that these films actually are bad...as some analysts and critics would have you believe...rather because it is well-known in the industry that these months are landfills, critics tend to be harsher and much less in the mood to watch these films (which is odd, since you'd think that films picked last for the softball team should be treated a little more gently...since we know they can't perform amongst their better-date brethren).  There are notable exceptions (many of them put in limited release in December to be eligible for awards season, but wide released in January or February to acclaim) which include Coraline, and then there really are poor films like Virus.  However, it really isn't all that different from other times in the year aside from the fact that there are very few tentpole releases.  Then there is another well-followed axiom of the film world, which is that any film that does not pre-screen for critics almost always gets terrible reviews.  Again, cynical critics and analysts would have you believe that that means the films are bad...but that is not often the case.  Critics, try as they might, are not the objective folk they try to appear to be and they are subject to the same biases and personal taste preferences as the rest of us.  They also hold a grudge when they aren't invited to a party, and when they have to see a movie with the rest of us mortals they tend to be fairly unapologetic.  However, this should not act as an actual evaluation of quality.  Many know the tale of Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho and how it was released unscreened for critics.  The reviewers attempted to bury the film because they were ticked at not being allowed to see it first, but the public spoke and now it is considered a classic and beyond reproach.  Heaven help a film then, if it is released in the early months of the year AND is not screened by critics.  That is the moment when people begin to make next year's Razzie Nominations.  Such a think happened this past weekend and a film that was a labor of love for many was thrown under the bus.  Were the critics too harsh or was the venom justified?  Let's see as I do my own look at a book-to-film adaptation 15 years in the making, One for the Money.

Stephanie Plum is an out of work and single woman in her 30s who lives in The Burg, a rather close knit and colorful portion of Trenton, New Jersey.  She had been working as a lingerie salesgirl at Macy's but was let go due to down-sizing.  She has no car, no income, and no skills so it seems that Stephanie may be at the end of her rope.  However, thanks largely to the urging of her Grandma Mazur, Stephanie goes to see her cousin Vinnie who runs a bail bonding company to see if she can persuade (read: blackmail) him into giving her a job as a filing clerk.  Unfortunately for Stephanie, the filing job is no longer needed.  However, the store manager Connie suggests that Stephanie look into skip-tracing.  Essentially she would track down any clients who were FTA (Failure to Appear for a Court Date) and bring them in to collect 10 percent of the bond.  Stephanie agrees upon seeing that an ex-boyfriend, Joe Morelli, has skipped bail and will net her $1000 is she can catch him.  Thus begins a cat-and-mouse game that teaches Stephanie that she needs more than a smile and her natural stubborness to catch a crook.  She begins learning the trade of bounty hunting from Ranger, a much more experienced skip tracer, and through her own experience and in doing so, begins to suspect that there is more to Morelli's case than meets the eye.  As the clock ticks forward and everyone Stephanie has talked to about the case seems to wind up dead, she begins to wonder if she is in over her head.

One for the Money currently has a 3% on Rotten Tomatoes and a score of 20/100 on Meta Critic which would tell anyone who relies on reviews to stay away...the message is clear: this film is worse than Ishtar or Gigli.  I have to admit, that even I was gun shy about seeing this one...and I consider myself a moderate fan of Janet Evanovich's 18 book series about the female bounty hunter (having loved the first 10 books and then feeling waning disinterest as I kept going).  However, I also couldn't understand how anyone could have made a horrible movie based on this wonderfully funny and exciting book so I went to see it anyway.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that the crowd was packed pretty tight at our theater for it as well, considering the bad press it was getting.  However, the real surprise was how much I and my fellow audience members enjoyed the picture.  No, there were no real belly laughs or guffaws, but several hearty "hah!s" and "chuckles".  Actually, the picture was darker than the trailers would have had you believe and more people were wrapped up in the mystery plot (which several reviewers had called ridiculous and ineptly handled).  Going out, I decided that no...it certainly wasn't the best action comedy I'd ever seen (that goes hands-down to Romancing the Stone), but it was still a good film (fine at worst) in that it did the job it set out to do, it entertained me.  I enjoyed Katherine Heigl's turn as Plum, much more than I thought I would, and I felt that the material remained true and in-spirit to the source material.  The comedy was amusing, and the suspense was genuine.  I could only guess, upon leaving, that I must simply have less discriminating tastes or I must have bad taste if I liked a film so loathed by critics.  How else could I explain that pleasant feeling that I felt (you know the one I mean, when you've really enjoyed your night at the flicks) afterward?  Far be it from me to imply that the critics are being overly harsh to this little yarn and it's star (the seemingly universally disliked Katherine Heigl) or to imply that with a different star, press screenings, and a better release date it might be much closer to a 45 or 50% rating (I'm not naive...it's not groundbreaking cinema).  Then again...when a film makes number three in the country despite a 3% in ratings, you do have to wonder if the opinions being shared aren't somewhat biased.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Big Picture

Yesterday was a pretty big day.  I had auditions for the senior class play (which went well considering only five students showed up), a full day of reading in my sophomore classes (we FINALLY started Act III of the Crucible), and the CCT awards dinner (from which I won nothing, but I don't mind...the best folks did indeed win) and by the end of it all, I was fairly pooped.  You'd think I'd sleep really well after such a busy day...and yet, you'd be dead wrong.  I ate three desserts at the dinner (because I had walked up so many extra calories going back and forth across the school yesterday) and since I hadn't done that many sweets in a terribly long time, I think all the sugar kept me awake.  It was a very good day, however, and once I got into the afternoon it flew by so quickly.  However, I still had time to watch a movie before bed and here it is for your consideration.  It's probably spoiling my usual lead-up to tell you that the film is the sequel to the film I covered yesterday, but given my level of exhaustion I kinda don't care.  I suppose sometimes our emotions are just bigger than usual...which goes along with the film nicely.  It is a film about growth and size...and for once that is meant in the literal rather than in the figurative sense.  So I bring to you one of the screen's BIGGEST stories (Ok, I'll stop the puns after this) entitled Honey, I Blew Up the Kid.

The Szalinski's (Wayne, Diane, Amy, Nick, and their new 2-year old baby Adam) have moved from their Fresno, California residence into a new address in Vista Del Mar, outside of Las Vegas, due to the success of Wayne's shrinking technology.  The family still keeps the tale of how he shrank the kids on the down-low to keep Amy and Nick from being questioned, harassed, and tested and Wayne is discovering how challenging corporate science can be.  His partner (read: boss) Dr. Charles Hendrickson is constantly trying to keep Wayne from being involved in their new project, reversing the process to make things grow, and Wayne has mainly remained in the project as a figurehead because he cannot tow the line and do as he's told.  Meanwhile, Amy is leaving for college and Diane insists on going with her to help her set up in her new dorm so that leaves Wayne, Nick, and Adam to enjoy a temporary bachelorhood.  However, before you can say "sequel", Adam is accidentally exposed to Wayne's new growth-ray and starts to gradually grow in size every time he comes in contact with an electrical appliance.  Despite Nick's, Wayne's, and Diane's efforts, they cannot keep him from growing and soon Adam is a towering 112 feet tall.  It is then up to the Szalinskis and Wayne's boss Clifford Sterling to find Adam and shrink him back down to size before he destroys the city of Las Vegas completely.

Honey, I Blew Up the Kid is a hard film to like...and at the same time a hard film to dislike.  The film expands on the original characters and gives everyone, from Wayne to Diane and down to Nick (sadly excluded is Amy, who is written into going to college) more to do than the last installment.  However, the plot is so predictable and easy to figure out (I mean, you literally imagine the producers discussing the story "First he made teenagers small...what if he made a baby BIG?") that you spend much of the film waiting for things to happen rather than wondering what will happen.  There is a certain level of suspense in wondering whether Adam really will seriously hurt someone or destroy something...but after a while, you realize that nothing of the sort will really happen because as precocious as Adam is...he is ultimately gentle and merely at play.  In fact, I think if Disney had placed any of the scampering humans at Adam's feet in genuine peril that the audience would have objected and the film would have gone to much darker places than this summer blockbuster really has any right to go.  It's true that the film was rewritten from a original script into a "Honey" sequel and so the limitations of the plot's imagination isn't completely it's fault (though it's a good thing they made it a sequel...because if this were trying to look original everyone would have just compared it to the first Honey anyway).  The comedy is solid and the direction, given the limitation of the early 90s effects, is also solid so I can't fault the film there.  I really is just a highly predictable and by-the-numbers film that is fine but never a replacement for it's much superior original.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

It's a Small World Afterall

Yesterday was a great day.  I know I gave mention to that yesterday at this time, but I really mean it.  The school day passed very quickly and I had plenty of time at home to relax...however I didn't relax, I made a mess in my kitchen instead.  Tonight is the annual CCT (Chillicothe Civic Theater) awards dinner and they asked all who were attending to bring a covered dish to share.  I decided to make the Bacon Cheddar Mashed Potatoes that I made with my sister this past Thanksgiving (and got rave reviews for), but I had never made mashed potatoes from scratch before.  Usually I just make the powdered kind which taste just fine to me, but I figured since I'm making this for a large group I should go all out.  So after peeling, slicing (with a food processor), and boiling the potatoes I had already spent 45 minutes on this one dish.  Good grief!  I also had to cook bacon and grate cheddar cheese too, which added to the time (though I was able to do most of that during the boil time for the potatoes.  From that point it was fairly easy, I just dumped the potatoes into my mixer and used the whisk attachment to mix in all the other ingrediants.  At the end of the experience (including clean up) I had spent an hour and a half making food that I myself was not planning to even eat that night.  It was a little rough on me mentally and pretty much made me pooped for the remainder of the night.  I don't mind, however...I know the dish will be a hit.  It was interesting how my time shrank down to practically nothing as I sat there in the kitchen and worked, which put me in the mood for today's film.  I remember having a facination with miniature things when I was a child.  Models, 3D puzzles, Micro Machines, and even mini-games simply amazed me.  I don't know if it was just that the things were reduced in size or that I was simply easy to entertain...but regardless I found the small universe facinating.  My mom seemed to understand this too, because she often delighted in giving me mini-foods (usually when I wouldn't eat the regular sized version) and mini-things.  I suppose then it was inevitable in the summer of 1989 that I would end up at one film that dealt with things that were miniature as well as things that were huge.  It was a live-action picture from Disney (who hadn't made many successful live-action films in a while) and was tailored almost perfectly for a kid like me.  So let's shrink ourselves down to size and enjoy revisiting Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.

Wayne Szalinski, a scientist, is struggling both in his professional life and in his marriage.  His wife Diane is largely supporting their family through her real estate work while Wayne spends much of his time inventing, and then she comes home from that to clean house and cook for her demanding family.  During a particularly rough patch in their relationship Wayne also hits a rough patch in his work.  The shrink ray he is attempting to create refuses to work and only wants to blow things up and this forces him to complete his presentation on his work without proof...essentially getting himself laughed off the stage.  Little does Wayne know that he is about to have some very tangible proof very soon.  His children, Amy and Nick, are home alone trying to clean the house when Ron Thompson, a neighbor kid, hits his baseball into the Szalinski's attic and accidentally activates the machine.  Russ Thompson Jr., Ron's older brother, makes Ron go to apologize and when they go up to retrieve the baseball, they are all shrunk by the machine to a height of 1/4 of an inch.  To add to their plight, Wayne comes home and destroys his machine in a rage and throws the kids out in the garbage...now they must deal with gigantic bugs, huge lawnmowers, and a backyard that is more like a vast jungle than the boring suburban space they know.  The kids must get back to the house and get big, or else they could be in big trouble.

Honey, I Shrunk the Kids is one of those perfect family movies from the 1980s.  It has action, special effects, an excellent story, and a great deal of heart thanks to the performances of it's leads.  The sets are particularly astounding as they perfectly replicate attic floors, blades of grass, counter tops, and other everyday objects as enormous environments for the four kids to run around in.  The design of the shrink ray is also impressive given that it looks highly technical and yet completely homemade.  Joe Johnston, a long time cinematographer for Steven Spielberg, expertly directs this, his first feature, as a rollicking old-fashioned adventure that has the feel of a real-life safari mixed with the feel of playing make believe in the backyard.  Watching this film again I had a tremendous feeling of nostalgia, and yet really appreciated how well the film has aged.  Sure, the song Amy dances to in the kitchen reeks of the late 80s and the clothes and hair styles are not of this time...yet the film still works as an exciting romp for young and old, and is a great film to revisit nowadays.

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Remake Done the Spielberg Way

Last week was amazing.  I got so much work done both on the finishing up side of things and the prep side and I had a great time hanging out with my teacher friends at our long lunches (everyone gets an hour for lunch during an exam week).  Add to that getting to spend more time with my friend Bond than I have in over a year this past weekend and a fancy meal at J. Gilbert's (it was Restaurant Week in Columbus again), and you have the mark of an amazing week.  I also hadn't seen my study hall in over a week (which in itself is enough to make a week great...they annoy the piss out of me) so it's almost a shame that today we had to get back into the normal routine of class, rinse, repeat.  However, I am cautiously optimistic about this second half of the school year.  The first half seems to have flown by, from my point of view, and I know with the senior play and the musical in the near future that my time is going to essentially evaporate into the air.  Before you know it (in exactly 4 months and six work days), it will be summer and I'll be chilling.  It's a nice thought, considering the challenges ahead (like getting through my second year of having students in the OGT and finding all the props we'll need for the shows) and it's part of what keeps me going.  Also, I feel like I've largely broken in my classes and that I can control them all and get them to produce the kind of work I expect (which in itself is a first-time feeling...usually by now I've resigned myself to "what you see is what you get").  Maybe I have finally hit that 3rd year stride all the wizened ancients have told me about. Now, onto today's film which is also about new beginnings and renewals but also about love and loss...all those great general emotions that make for touching stories.  It is a film that had already been made once before in the 1940s as A Guy Named Joe and is not one you would expect to see as a contemporary story in 1989...considering the film was about World War II and fighter pilots.  To my knowledge, even though we were all terrified of World War III, it wasn't something that had happened and thus could be written into a story like this.  However, Steven Spielberg and his team of artists would not be blocked from bringing their version of the story to screens (afterall, it was one of his favorite films) and so they made a few setting changes and took some generous liberties and suddenly yes...the story was fresh and relevant again.  However, would it be a success or would it be known as Spielberg's second major failure (cause we know how people loathe the idea of remakes).  Let's fly into the sunset and find out with Always.

Pete Sandich is an aerial firefighter who spends his days flying a surplus A-26 bomber over forest fires and dumping fire resistant slurry on them to put them out.  He is an ace pilot and wonderful at what he does, however he is also a huge risk taker and is constantly putting his life in danger for his job.  This gives his partner Al Yackey pause and drives his girlfriend Dorinda Durston, a pilot and a dispatcher, many sleepless nights.  One night, after Pete manages to glide into the runway on nothing but a wing and a prayer, Dorinda presents him with an ultimatum: either Pete gets out of the air and moves to Flat Rock, Colorado to train firefighters or she leaves him to find a man who can fly sensibly.  To quote her, "I love you Pete, but I'm not enjoying it."  Pete agrees, but not before he is needed for one last run.  During the flight, Al's engine catches fire and Pete risks his own life to save him...killing himself in the process.  Al and Dorinda mourn Pete's loss and move on to new places, seemingly drawing the story to a close.  However, Pete's spirit is still kicking and has been assigned by Hap, a kind of angel, to be the inspiration and guide of a new pilot in training named Ted Baker.  Ted is a bit of a klutz, but he has talent that Pete can easily see even when his instructor (Pete's old friend Al) cannot.  Things become more difficult for Pete, however, when he discovers that Dorinda is also in Flat Rock and that Ted is falling in love with her.  He now has to ask himself if he should spend his energy getting her to not forget him, or if he has the strength to let her go.

Always is something of a curiosity for Spielberg in that it came after a long smear of action-adventure pictures and two heartfelt dramas (Empire of the Sun and The Color Purple respectively).  It looked to follow in those films footsteps in that it was about human emotion and drama, but it also had the supernatural angle that was more in tune with the Indiana Jones films and Poltergeist (which Steve directed).  However, it was not meant to be a success, as it opened behind National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, Tango and Cash, The War of the Roses, and Back to the Future Part II and didn't exactly light the box-office on fire.  More damning was the critical response which criticized the director's departure from his established formula, his insistence on making a remake, and dated material.  Indeed, the film even takes a moment to mention how much the firefighter's lodge is reminiscent of the USOs of WWII.  Tired and dirty airmen and women hang around while they drink beer and eat bad food.  Some of them fall in love and then spend sleepless nights wondering when their partners will arrive home safe and sound.  However, I think this comparison does a disservice to the film.  Sure it feels a little like romanticised World War II...but at the same time it is a depiction of what life is like (or may be like) for those firefighters who work so hard to keep our nations national forests from burning to the ground each year.  I personally think it was an ingenious plot device that allowed Speilberg to have his WWII planes and pilots and yet still keep the film firmly rooted in the present day.  How many other directors were making films about aerial firefighters?  That story also provides a great deal of conflict early on in the film and provides Dorinda with a very good motive for wanting Pete to stop what he is doing.  To quote her again, "I could understand if you were risking your life for someone else's life...anybody's life."  Indeed, the fact that Pete risks himself for burning trees makes his daredevil piloting much more of a character flaw that it would have in a film where soldiers are really risking themselves for the lives of the men they work with and thus gives him immediate complexity as a character.  Richard Dreyfuss as Pete is only one part of the heart of the film...the other parts filled by John Goodman as Al and Holly Hunter as Dorinda.  Goodman always gives 110% whenever he is on camera and that is true here as well as he manages to be funny and amazingly touching (sometimes even in the same scene) and Holly Hunter expertly acts Dorinda and keeps her from being the nagging and worrisome shrew she could have been.  She is both soft and strong, funny and serious, and she carries the biggest challange of the film...not turning into a stereotypical "weeping widow".  All three actors deserve to be nominated for their work in this film, and it is a real shame that none of them were.  Sure, they've all earned their respective awards for better known work...but it is work like this that goes unnoticed due to critical disintrest and box office numbers that really matters and shows that it isn't just "Roseanne" or The Piano or The Goodbye Girl that are worth seeing.  I will always love Always (forgive the terrible pun that I didn't mean to write) and will forever insist that it is a gem of a movie. (P.S. I forgot to mention, this film is also the final film performance of Audrey Hepburn who expertly plays the angel Hap with a grace and a wisdom that seems supernatural and it is always a delight to see her in this.)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Nice Doing Business With You

There are some movies, as I said back when I first started this blog, that we aren't supposed to like because of several factors.  Perhaps it is because the star is someone that is generally known to have little to no talent, or maybe it is the fact that the film is a remake or a sequel to something much more well liked, or maybe the story is just too strange or odd to really connect with mass amounts of people.  Either way, general consensus dictates that the film is of poor quality and so it gets shuffled off to the side to rot.  It might surprise you to know that many of my favorite films fall into that outcast group of films we're supposed to not enjoy.  I think this is the case for two reasons...one, I've always been a little left-of-center regarding my taste, but also when I see these films my expectations remain low and allow the films a much better chance of impressing me.  We come, then, to the film of the day that I have enjoyed since I was in college and which was considered a misfire by those in the know...it has actually become something of a winter tradition too.  Every January, I either rent or watch the film on Netflix because I need a good laugh and it delivers (I probably should buy it at some point).  It is an underdog story and a gender reversal story which makes it ripe with comic possibilities and full of deeper themes at work, and I think makes it eligible for a second look from the public.  So let's head down to Wall Street and conference with The Associate.

Laurel Ayres is a smart and single investment banker trying to move her way up the corporate ladder.  She thinks she has a promotion in the bag, but discovers the cold truth about the Wall Street 'boy's club' when her partner, who she trained, takes her promotion right out from under her.  Unable to deal with it and tow the line like the other women who have been passed over, Laurel tries to start her own business as an investment banker.  All of her old contacts are not interested in working with her because she is an African American woman and she becomes highly discouraged.  In a moment of desperation, she invents a fictional partner who is both male and white and makes it seem like he is her boss and the man behind the ideas.  She names him Robert S. Cutty and creates an entire persona and identity for him in order to make people believe that he really exists.  Then, along with a computer-savvy secretary named Sally Dugan, she begins to become one of the best independent stock brokers in the city.  However, when the public demands to see more of Cutty and Laurel begins losing credit to Cutty for her own ideas, she begins to wonder if she will be able to keep the lie going.

The Associate is a seemingly routine comedy with fairly standard comic tropes such as underdog-makes-good and the gender-bender, but there is much more going on than just a standard comedy.  The film also takes malicious glee in sending-up the media and their frantic scramble to find the next new face of fame (and to hunt it down when it refuses to appear on camera).  I particularly enjoy how it cynically and matter-of-factly points out that everyone is in on the take, from bellhops and concierges of hotels, to high-end business people and professionals.  The film also, in it's most prominent theme, examines the effort businessmen go to to keep women (especially women of color) out of their executive board rooms and clubs.  A particularly wonderful scene features Laurel (Whoopi Goldberg) entering the Peabody Club (rich males only) dressed as Cutty and unmasking upon accepting the Businessman of the Year award.  The men all react with shocked expressions, but the women who are demanded to remain outside and the waiters and bus boys who serve the men, give her a standing ovation.  Speaking of performances, while Whoopi is wonderful as always, it is the supporting players who give the film it's most oomph.  Dianne Wiest plays Whoopi's overlooked secretary with a sweetness that makes her very likable and pleasant, but also with a bit of tartness to show that she has some attitude to match.  Her character is a wonderful foil for Whoopi and a voice of reason to her when her lies begin to become too intricate.  Also lighting up the sidelines are Bebe Newurth as a shrewd and sexy accountant, Lanie Kazan as a loud-mouthed reporter, and Tim Daly as Laurel's former partner and chief antagonist of the film.  Overall, I would definately place this film next to Working Girl as a "women in business" double feature.  See if you haven't, and maybe you'll make it a tradition too. (Apologies, the trailer is in another language.)

Friday, January 6, 2012

Something Fishy (and non horrific)

I've watched and reviewed a lot of horror these past few days and so I think today I should do something a little different today.  First let me lament about the Internet situation here in the building today.  The Internet has been running slow and sluggish the whole week and today the technology department decided to run a full diagnostic over it which requires turning off several Internet ports...which makes the Internet not work in several places in the building.  This normally wouldn't bother me, as it comes back with enough frequency to allow me to take role and check things for starting class.  However, I am also giving my quarterly assessments today and we have to do them online...which is fairly difficult when the Internet keeps going in and out.  I literally almost pulled out my hair trying to deal with that this morning and assuring the students that everything would be fine eventually.  This afternoon is my last class where I need to do this and I am hopeful that everything will be much smoother.  Sometimes I wonder, despite my love for new technology, if I wouldn't be happier in a simpler time or place.  Animals don't have to deal with frustrations like these, they just have to deal with the survival of the fittest (which seems like a perfectly reasonable full time job).  The film I am looking at today looks at a man who wishes he could live a simpler life as an animal, and against all odds he gets his wish.  So let's get swimming and look at The Incredible Mr. Limpet.

The film opens in 1941 and focuses on Henry Limpet, a shy bookkeeper with an astigmatism and a fascination with fish.  He wants nothing more than to be able to join the Navy, but his vision and his small stature keep him from doing so.  His wife, Bessie, tries to love him and be supportive of him but she finds his interest in fishes and lectures to be aggravating.  His friend George Stickle often comes to visit and smugly rubs his Naval commission in Henry's face.  One afternoon, when the trio is visiting Coney Island, Henry goes out on the pier and while wishing he could become a fish, he accidentally falls in.  As he sinks, he slowly turns into a large spectacle-wearing fish while Bessie and George simply assume that Henry has drowned.  Enjoying his new body, Limpet swims off into the ocean where he meets a grumpy crab he names Crusty, and a lovely lavender porpoise he names Ladyfish.  He also discovers he can produce a powerful underwater "thrum" that can actually knock larger fish away from him through the water.  Realizing that his knowledge of boats can help the Navy, he gets in touch with them by helping them sink a U-boat.  George becomes Limpet's liaison to the Navy and they set off on a mission to invade Germany by sea.  However, the Nazi forces have begun developing a weapon to hunt and kill Limpet before he can destroy anymore of their ships.  It is now a race against time to see if Limpet will prevail against the Third Reich.

Like many family-oriented films in the 1960s, The Incredible Mr. Limpet looks kinda cheap and is just a little too precious for it's own good.  The story is largely implausible due to there being no explanation for Limpet's change in form nor his "thrum" ability.  However, the cast and director take the affair so seriously (comic moments notwithstanding) that it is hard to not get caught up in the fun of it.  Don Knotts plays Limpet very meekly in human form and then steadily bolder as he learns to live life as a fish.  It's hard to think of Knotts as a war hero, but his Limpet is courageous and genuine like some of film's classic heroes.  The other human players are good, but they can't really hold a candle to Knotts.  The music of Limpet is not the best you will ever hear nor the most memorable, in fact this is one musical where I think the songs really slow the plot down rather than help it along (which may be what the filmmakers intended, since the film's story is fairly straightforward).  The bright colors and stagy production design for the live action scenes, as well as the mixing of animation and live actors, make this another candidate for 'films most likely to be mistaken for a Disney production'.  It's palate and artificiality match much of what was coming out of the Mouse House in the same era, such as Mary Poppins, though the former has been given considerably more love and care than Warner's has done with Limpet.  Still, it's a charming (if flawed) picture that manages to entertain me consistantly each viewing.  If you have little ones, they will probably enjoy the animated fish while you laugh at the fun that is poked at World War II.  It certainly won't be dull.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

New Decade, New Rules

I'm starting to feel old.  I know I say that a lot, but after last year's theatrical offerings I really feel old.  For example, The Muppets was released at the tail end of the year and was all about how they weren't cool anymore and had been forgotten largely by the pop culture center.  Having existed in the heyday of the Muppets career, that hit me somewhat hard.  Also, shows I used to love are now entering their 20th and 30th anniversaries (such as Designing Women and Roseanne) and some of the actors are even dead now.  So the recent nostalgia/reboot kick has both delighted me and made me a little embarrassed, because even though I've been a lifelong fan of something like the Muppets...its now more campy and "cute" to still like them rather than to have grown up and moved on.  So it is with deep reverence that I bring to you my look at the latest and so-far final entry in the "Scream" series, released to theaters in April of 2011.  It finds the familiar characters older and more world-weary than before and a bit lost in the current pop culture world...much how my generation is scrambling for a foothold to stay hip and aware.  And yet, the film is timely and topical in a way that only Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven know how to be and it feels like an homage to the 90s and an ode to today.  It is without further ado that I introduce a film that rejuvinated my faith in horror, Scream 4.

It has been 11 years since Ghostface last terrorized Sidney Prescott and all has been very quiet on that front.  However, a good horror franchise must keep going and so the Stab movies have continued...using the character of Ghostface but remaining largely unrelated to Sidney and her troubles.  Now that they have reached part 7, the series has descended into to a formulaic rut where cliches run abound and little actual terror is seen on screen...that is until a new Ghostface killer shows up in Woodsboro and brutally murders two teenaged girls just mere days before the anniversary of the original Ghostface killings.  The crime coinsides with Sidney Prescott's media-hyped return to Woodsboro to plug her new book, "Out of Darkness", which tells her story through her eyes rather than the sensationalist media and discusses her refusal to remain a victim.  Sheriff Dewey Riley is on the case and is trying to keep retired reporter wife, Gale Weathers-Riley, from getting into the investigation and a new cast of Woodsboro teens appear to be targeted by the killer, including Sid's cousin Jill Roberts.  As the bodies mount and the killer closes in on Sidney and Jill, the survivors must figure out what the rules of this generation's horror are and try to figure them out before they end up on the chopping block.

Scream 4 really impressed me with it's frank and honest skewering of today's horror conventions and cliches while also thrilling me and surprising me with it's intense violence and shocker of an ending.  Kevin Williamson, despite being out of the horror loop for many years, still has his finger on the pulse of what is expected at this juncture of the game and he gives them all a good jab with his satirical pen.  Films like Saw are dissected as "torture porn" and The Ring is lampooned when someone mentions "little Asian ghost girls".  The big dig of course comes at the industry of making remakes, something that has hit it's peak just recently.  Scream 4 acts as both a sequel and a semi-remake in that regard as it becomes obvious that the killer is not content to simply make another sequel, but to recreate and re-stage Stab as his own masterpiece.  Which makes Jill the new Sidney, her ex the new Billy, and so on and so forth.  It is clever and allows the filmmakers to do remake-type things without actually making one.  It also becomes a goldmine of references for long-time fans as we see repeated set ups and dialogue which reference past entries.  The greatest moments of comedy and terror are given to the remake spoofing, particularly in a scene where Hayden Panettiere's Kirby, a chic movie-buff, tries to out-guess the voice on the phone by listing every remake that has been released in the past decade.  The new actors are all game and their characters are fun and likable, and yet none of them overshadow the three survivors who have yet again returned to run for their lives.  David Arquette's Dewey shows the most dramatic change as we see him more mature and in charge of the entire town's safety.  There are fewer goofy Dewey moments and much more of Dewey as a grown-up.  Likewise, Gale's brashness has cooled somewhat and she is less interested in sensationalism than she is with helping solve the crimes (though it wouldn't Gale if she wasn't a little interested in making this a new book).  Lastly is Sidney, who has changed dramatically from the last outing.  No longer does she run and hide or wait to find a weapon when faced with Ghostface, rather she runs into the fray and grapples with him head-on.  She also has a weariness to her (that many confused with 'phoning the performance in') that is realistic for someone who has faced the same trials three times before and now is being faced with the nightmare for a fourth time after what seemed like an endless reprieve from terror.  Together, these three characters are what hold the series together and to have any films without them would weaken those entries.  While other series are about killers and deaths, Scream is ultimately about real people and how they grow and change.  That is what gives them their strength.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Welcome to the Final Act

I'm much more fuzzy headed today than I was yesterday and I can't decide if that has to do with me being tired or with me being cold.  It is particularly cold today at school, and I always blame that on our poorly insulated cinder block walls and windows leaching out all the heat.  My desk is right next to the outer wall and it feels like an ice chest over here.  I've been passing out earlier and earlier these days too, so I shouldn't be tired...but yet I have the itchy eyes and slow wits of a guy who hasn't slept enough.  Maybe its a combination...my body is cold so it wants to hibernate.  At any rate, it is uncomfortable and it makes for something of a slow day.  On the up side, I am now over halfway finished with my freshman semester exam and I wager I will have it finished by Friday (just in time to go home and doctor up some hefty review sheets for my freshmen and sophomores over the weekend...just what I always wanted).  It's my third round of semester exams and it is starting, finally, to feel routine.  Speaking of third entries, today I am going to talk about the third film in the "Scream" franchise which was also the concluding chapter until this year's fourth entry...and in many ways it still is a final entry in single story.  Kevin Williamson has said he always envisioned "Scream" as a trilogy when he began working on the first part and Wes Craven found the idea of a horror trilogy compelling.  Most franchises go to part three and then immediately to parts 4, 5, and 6 fairly quickly before they run out of steam, never focusing on making a cohesive whole and more-so wishing to repeat the formula as the first films so it would be fascinating to see how a horror trilogy would conclude.  Let's see now where the story of Sidney Prescott would end in Scream 3.

Tragedy strikes in Hollywood during the filming of Stab 3, the third film based on the Woodsboro killings, when Cotton Weary, formerly accused by Sidney of raping and murdering her mother, and his girlfriend Christine are brutally murdered by a new Ghostface killer.  At first, this appears to be yet another copycat killer like at Windsor College, but the killer's victims all have a connection to Sidney Prescott and his single drive is to find her and bring her out of hiding.  Add to that the wrinkle of him leaving a photo of young Maureen Prescott at each crime scene and the fact that he admits to having been the one to actually kill her (unlike Billy and Stu from the original massacre), suddenly this "sequel" seems to be taking a strange turn.  Meanwhile, Sidney has been living in seclusion in the California country side and is living and working under a fake name so that no one can ever terrorize her again.  However, her own restless thoughts about her mother and eventual knowledge of a new killer finally force her out of hiding and into the path of the madman in order to face her past and her future.

Scream 3 in concept was very ambitious and perhaps the most risky of the three films to make up to this point because of the massive success of the first two films and what the creators were trying to do to up the ante in this installment.  In classic trilogies, like The Godfather and Star Wars, the past and it's slow discovery in the present has a great deal to do with the structure of those tales and how they eventually play out.  So too was Scream 3 structured, once again focusing on Sidney and what she does and does not know about her mother.  The idea that the killer in this film could be a mastermind of the first film tantalized and teased fans anxiously awaiting the release of the film and, at least as far as the filmmakers were concerned, that promise was fulfilled.  However, due to creating much of this backstory for the third film and the fact that it all managed to seem more "movie-like" than realistic like the first two, fans didn't take to this installment as they did to the first two.  Add to that the fact that it was written by Ehren Krueger and not Kevin Williamson (based on bits of his treatment), that seemed to be the nail in the coffin for this installment and would forever cement it as the weakest of the series.  I think that misses many points however, as the film also brilliantly skewers the politics and process of making movies in Hollywood (just as the first film skewered horror film cliches and the second film poked fun at sequels).  Since the movie-within-the-movie, Stab 3, covers a completely fictional story that returns to the hometown of Woodsboro and the actors who are playing Sidney, Dewey, and Gale are along side the surviving trio as targets and suspects, the film becomes a high-octane house of mirrors and illusions that repeats portions of the first film and still allows for surprises.  Highlights include a chase scene between Sidney and Ghostface through the set of her home in Woodsboro and Jenny McCarthy's big scene where she complains about playing the girl who gets killed second to the actual killer who plans to make her the second victim.  It is self-reflexive almost to the point of parody which I found clever but others found cloying.  In fact, the film was mandated to be tamer than the first two because it came out just after the Columbine killings so the emphasis was always meant to be more on comedy than horror.  In many ways, I think Scream 3 is a fitting conclusion to the original trilogy despite its slightly odd missteps.  It effectively breaks many of its own rules and furthers the characters of Sidney, Dewey, and Gale as.  If you've watched them all up to this point, give this one a whirl too.  "Scream" is still better than most of the horror out there even on it's worst day.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Sequels Suck

I'm pretty proud of myself for getting in at least one more post between Christmas and today, our first day back to school after the long winter break.  This year we were off for a whopping 17 days this year thanks to a calendar goof (our district calendar authors did not allow for the federal holiday yesterday and thus were forced to take it).  I don't think anyone has broken the bad news to the kids yet, because no one has complained about it yet...but because we took an extra day and still must get in our 180 days, their last day of school has moved from May 31st to June 1st.  A huge change I know (and yes that is sarcasm) but at the end of the year, an extra school day is like cruel and unusual punishment to them.  I'm not worried really, I have my last two exams classes that day and I predict a large majority of my annoying students will simply not come that day (look at my tears, I'm so sad about it)...but the whining that they will let loose when they are told will most definately ruin my day on the day they finally break the bad news.  Today has been fraught with annoyances though, largely due to the fact that they installed new copiers while we were gone.  I am the first to say that our old copiers weren't up to snuff, but this new machine is so different and slow that I am missing our old jam-a-minute giants.  Normally this wouldn't bug me, but since I had to copy several sets of quarterly assessments (at 10-20 pages a pop) I was not happy to be the first to get an error message and to spend 45 minutes down there waiting for the job to finish.  However, the kids are being pretty good today (a blessing) and I think we all got our batteries recharged nicely over break and we are ready to face the long stretch before spring break (12 weeks and counting) that looks to not be littered with delays and snow days this year (it only just snowed on Sunday for the first time here...which is very unusual).  Anyway, as we head into these last weeks before the semester ends and we gear up for the second half of the year, I got to thinking about part 2s in film.  People typically acknowledge that sequels stink in the film world aside from some rare exceptions (that are usually held up as templates for good sequel making)...and the horror genre is no exception.  In fact, aside from notable sci-fi franchises and James Bond...the only series' from America to pass the 2 or 3 mark are those tried and true horror franchises.  So when Bob and Harvey Weinstein hit one out of the park with their incredibly risky Scream in 1996, they immediately saw "franchise" in their futures and rushed a second film into production.  Lucky for them, Wes Craven was keen to continue and Kevin Williamson had already written a 15 page treatment for the sequel to "Scary Movie" (the original title of Scream) when he submitted his final draft.  The key survivors were onboard too, and with the success of the first, they now had their pick of actors to portray the new victims of Ghostface.  Was the film any good or should it be filed away with all those other lesser sequels to horror originals.  Let's find out as we look into Scream 2.

If one thing about life is certain, pathos brings about avid interest and fortune for those willing to capitalize on it.  Such is the case of the story of Sidney Prescott who has been unwillingly thrust into the limelight following her fight to the death with Billy Loomis and Stu Macher, her boyfriend and friend respectively, who had terrorized her on the anniversary of her mother's death.  Thanks to constant media coverage, a bestselling book about the case by Gale Weathers titled "The Woodsboro Murders", and a new film based on the book called Stab, Sidney can't seem to escape her tormented past.  When two students from her college are murdered at a sneak preview of the new film, Sidney finds herself again tormented by a masked killer and a voice on the phone who could literally be anyone.  As the body count rises and the list of suspects grows longer, Sidney, Randy, Gale, and Dewey must examine cliches of movie sequels that the killer is following and figure them out to try and survive.

Scream 2 was a film that first disappointed me in theaters because my 8th grade mind felt it was too different from the first film.  I was expecting a repeat of what made the first film so successful, which does happen, but Craven and Williamson delivered so much more than I was expecting that I originally felt that they got it wrong.  Only years later when I viewed the film again, did I realize that they got everything right...again.  Scream 2 is one of those rare sequels that not only meets the original at it's own game, but in many ways surpasses it.  The opening scene with Jada Pinkett Smith and Omar Epps acts not just as a thrilling start to an engaging ride, but it also acts as an excellent piece of meta-cinema that asks the question "Take a really good look at what we're being entertained by."  The scene feels like a party, with audience members cheering and howling at the screen as they are entertained, much in the way we were, watching the first story that we all know so well.  However, things take a sick turn when one of them is stabbed repeatedly and then stands on stage for all to see before she dies.  Suddenly, no one is cheering or clapping...they are shocked to stunned silence wondering if what they're seeing is real or a publicity stunt.    There is also a heavy emphasis on the different stages of the world, whether it is a movie theater stage or a dramatic theater stage, and how action plays out across them in similar ways.  Scream 2 is, in many ways, the most intellectual of the "Scream" series, and I think that is probably why it lost me when I was 14. I was only seeing the forest and not the trees.  Now I can appreciate all the surface and deeper meanings of Scream 2.  The performances should not be overlooked in this analysis as each returning actor brings a sense of depth and experience to their characters that feels natural, and once again as though they are real people dealing with a real scenario.  It should also be noted that the film, like Wes Craven's New Nightmare, faces head-on the question of whether violent movies lead to violent actions and comes up with a very compelling answer tied to the new killer's motive.  I shant give it away, but I will say that I did not see it coming the first time.  If you liked Scream, chances are you will like Scream 2 even more so why not give it a whirl.