Thursday, June 28, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard? No Thanks ...

Never in my life have I seen so many goddamn explosions. In fact, I think that might have been the original working title for Live Free or Die Hard, the fourth installment of the Die Hard series starring Bruce Willis. Of course producers backed off when they realized having “Goddamn” in the title might have negated that PG-13 rating. Live Free or Die Hard is a joke.

I know I will probably take one on the chin for this as most movie-goers are going to love this film. Bruce Willis is back as John McClane and he’s taking on more terrorists. For some, that’s the worth the price of admission alone. Then you add blowing up a helicopter with a car, a battle with a bad-ass kung-fu chick, lots of gunplay, a battle between a semi-truck and a jet plane, and most fans are going to go nuts for this movie. However, those people don’t mind that there’s no plot, even though the first act began with a pretty good attempt at one.

The first act introduces us to our baddie Thomas Gabriel (played by Timothy Olyphant, who I like a lot, and even like in this role), a jilted computer engineer who decides to use computer technology and a group of hackers to bring America to its knees over the Fourth of July weekend. There are some extreme leftist ideas, speaking the disenchantment of those who would ring the phrase, “I love my country, but fear my government.” At times, it almost feels anti-American, and that, to me, was extremely interesting and bold considering the political climate that we currently live in. Obviously, John McClane is going to save the day, but not before the ideas of those who live comfortably as capitalist fat cats, and blindly follow their government are questioned, right? Well, no … actually … what begins as an interesting premise dissolves into everything exploding, with the plot being a mere backdrop, and never actually living beyond the plot devices of the sequels that preceded it.

I like Justin Long (The Mac kid, who doesn’t actually use a Mac in this film), who is the buddy in this go-round of Die Hard: The Buddy Sequels, playing a computer hacker and unwitting accomplice to Thomas Gabriel’s meltdown of technology. This is pretty much the starting point of the story as there can be no witnesses and John McClane finds himself protecting the hacker with a criminal record. There are some nice ‘buddy’ moments, admittedly, and I did like this film through most of the first and second acts, but the third act becomes a parody of itself.

The filmmakers have forgotten every reason why it is that they have a job making a fourth, yes fourth, Die Hard film. You make sequels when you have a successful film. I understand that, but none of the sequels have lived up to their predecessor, and Live Free or Die Hard might be the worst offender. Die Hard is a perfect action film that reinvented action movies, as well as reinvented what we expect from the action hero. The entire film takes place in one building, and a shoeless John McClane takes on the terrorists and defeats them because he is brave, cool, collected, and smarter than his adversaries. He is a regular guy who saves the day against all mathematical probability.

As the sequels have progressed, however, the filmmakers have forgotten, or just ignored these facts. Sure, I want to see big action, but I don’t need to see it at the expense of plot. When there is little story making me truly believe the action occurring on screen is even partly feasible, then my attention is already lost, which brings me to my complaints about the third act. I’ll forgive the weak CGI in the highway tunnel scene that we’ve all seen in the trailer, depicting a car flipping into the air and Willis and Long just ducking in time. I’ll forgive the ridiculousness of a car going up a ramp and crashing into a helicopter. I will not forgive a semi-truck battling a jet plane while pieces of the highway are crashing all over the place only to wind up with Willis surfing on top of said jet. That was it. The over-the-top aspects that I could buy into as summer popcorn fun, disappeared into mockery.

People will like this film if they’re looking for 2 hours and 10 minutes of non-stop cartoon-like action, with a few catch phrases sprinkled in there, and if they can also accept the fact that it starts out with promise only to fail in its storytelling. I could not be so forgiving.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is Probably the Best Horror Film You've Never Seen!

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon comes to DVD on June 26, thanks to the fine folks at Anchor Bay. However, it is also thanks to the fine folks at Anchor Bay that most have never heard of this film. What is without a doubt the best horror film to be released in years, Behind the Mask was only given limited release in theaters, and was, ultimately, marketed wrong. In many cases this film was being billed as a documentary of a serial killer, which we’ve seen enough, and is interesting enough, but totally off the mark in this case, and not going to get the attention of horror fans who should have seen this film.

The Rise of Leslie Vernon is not a documentary about a serial killer, nor is it merely a mockumentary about a serial killer. It is a perfect post-modern deconstruction of the supernatural horror film. Leslie Vernon (an inspired performance by Nathan Baesel) is a man who was presumably killed as a young boy by the townspeople of Echo Falls where the legend of that fateful night lives on, and he is now ready to begin a killing spree worthy of his myth.

With journalist Taylor Gentry (Angela Goethals) and a film crew in tow, Leslie describes how it is that he plans to live up to the masters Jason, Freddy, Mike and Chuck, and even delves slightly into how they do it. The idea of the supernatural is never made to be silly or ridiculous, but instead is serious work, and takes much in the way of preparation. Baesel’s Vernon is very funny, witty and charismatic, which makes Behind the Mask seem like a comedy, but it is his charming attitude that makes him seem that much more haunting. Not all killers are outwardly psychotic; it is because they are charming and charismatic that guys like Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy were so successful at luring unsuspecting victims.

It is, however, Vernon’s dry explanations that make this film a bit comedic as he deconstructs the genre, and even introduces us to his mentor, Eugene, played by Scott Wilson. Wilson seems to represent more of the Slasher/ Grindhouse films of the 60s and 70s, prior to the obligatory sequel. He is a man who has respect for the game of fear, and knows that if he didn’t play his part, then there would be no evil to go head to head with good.

It is in this understanding of good and evil that Vernon explains that the true battle for someone in his line of work is against the Survivor Girl, the virgin who has the only true chance at surviving his killing spree. The plot thickens, of course, when Robert England as Doc Holloran shows up to fulfill the role of Vernon’s “Ahab,” the man from his past hell bent on stopping his murder spree.

The DVD has some nice behind-the-scenes stuff as well as some deleted and extended scenes. All have commentary with director Scott Glosserman, which does much to explain and expand on some of the concepts within the film. The actor commentary is fun, but not particularly informative. It amounts to little more than storytelling, not so much a mini-film school as some director commentaries can be. Ultimately, though, it is not the extras that make this DVD worth owning, although there’s some good stuff in there, all worth watching, it is the brilliance of this film that you are going to want to watch again and again.

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon is everything Scream should have been. Instead of playing to laughs exclusively, BtM is exactly what it strives to be. It is not a parody and, in fact, plays more to its intended audience, but does enough explaining that a mainstream audience could have a lot of fun here. At its heart, though, this is a celebration of horror films that is itself the beginning of a new killer to add to the pantheon of greats.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Silver Surfer Helps Take Fantastic Four to New Heights!

Is it possible? Is Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer really, truly, the first great summer blockbuster?! It’s certainly the most fun I’ve had staring up at that silver screen this summer. With all of the talk about it being directed at kids and carrying a PG rating, I have to say that the PG doesn’t matter. There isn’t going to be nudity or partial nudity in an FF film; there isn’t going to be any blood and gore in an FF film; and there certainly isn’t going to be any cussing in an FF film. However, there is another suggested nude scene with Sue Storm, there is a little bit of risqué humor, and it does lean a little dark at times. Keep in mind, though, that all of the places one might desire for this film to go to achieve that PG-13 rating are the very same places that the comic book never goes. This is a family film and that’s ok.

FF2 has officially learned from the mistakes made on the first film, and writers Don Payne and Mark Frost have made a nice effort in bringing the feeling of Marvel’s First Family to the big screen. I daresay that Don Payne gets it! Yes, we need big action, but we also need depth within the family and between the four main characters, and it’s all here. This time, the jokes are funny, the action is fun, and the villain doesn’t come off as silly. Doom is in this film, but he’s depicted as a bit more dark and menacing, even if Julian McMahon as Victor seems to grin and wink at the camera. It’s when we see Doom that this character works.

On the set of Rise of the Silver Surfer in Vancouver Julian McMahon was asked if Doom would be a bit more evil this go round, and his response was a cocky grin and, “Well, you can’t make him too evil or the kiddies wouldn’t be able to watch.” The problem then, is that he has no idea what comic book evil is. It’s not the same as real world evil. It is without rhyme or reason, more about grudges and power … well, that sounds a lot like real world evil, but my point is that the hero always wins in comics, and always defeats the larger than life evil of a comic book villain, and is not a danger to the innocence of “the kiddies.”

Doom has a grudge against Reed, and uses it as his reason for becoming the iron fisted dictator of Latveria, which is glazed over in this film, but his bid to take over the world is there, and in terms of comic book evil, all you really need is a grudge. But it’s only there because the writers understand the character.

It is because the writers understand the character, that this film is stepped up a notch. Tim Story also does a fine job of mixing the humor and emotion with some fun action beats. We finally get to see Reed step up and become the leader of this team. No longer is he the wimp that he was in the first film. Ioan Gruffud is still a little awkward, but the characterization is strong. Sue, who spent much of the first film in a “whoa is me, why can’t we get married” state of mind, comes full circle in this film and becomes more of the matriarch that we know and love from the comic books.

While Reed and Sue are slowly becoming the heads of the “family,” the relationship between Johnny and Ben deepens and is right on. Chris Evans understands the character of Johnny Storm so well that he stole the show in the first film; this time around, he gives a better performance, but doesn’t steal the show because he’s no longer the only actor working his ass off. Michael Chiklis is great as The Thing, still curmudgeonly, but really is the ever-lovin’ blue eyed Thing. As much as Johnny and Ben pick on each other, we see a little bit of heart here. Through Johnny’s cocky attitude, we see that he is a bit jealous of Ben and Alicia, and it works without being mired in emotion like the first film.

Which brings us to the Silver Surfer, whom this story is primarily about. WOW! Silver Surfer is one of those characters in the comic book that instantly captures the imagination. Few other mediums could do justice to a silver entity riding a surfboard through space, which is why it works in comics, and these things don’t always work in movies. Fans have been clamoring for years to see Norin Radd on the big screen, much the way fans thought they wanted to see Venom. To the benefit of FF and the Silver Surfer, though, Tim Story makes this character work. Doug Jones, also, should receive kudos aplenty as his movements make this character so fluid, so cosmic, so … perfect. That Laurence Fishburn plays the voice is sort of inconsequential. So much emphasis was put on the effort to get a “real actor” to voice the surfer, but with few lines it could have been anyone, and should have been Doug Jones. Fishburn didn’t make me love the character any more than I did already. It’s the story that drives the character, and the story is fun.

In fact, one of the largest geek complaints is in making Galactus a storm cloud, but I think seeing is believing. Would I have liked to see the big purple and blue eater of worlds? You bet your surfboard I would have, but it didn’t matter. He was depicted more as a circumstance, and it worked. Much the way Venom was rushed into Spidey 3, putting Galactus as more than just a presence in this film, might have felt rushed. Instead, seeing a cloud of dust and debris as he makes his bid to eat Earth ends up feeling a bit more cataclysmic, perhaps, less silly. And if you look close enough, you’ll even see an outline of the helmet.

This is Silver Surfer’s story, and the movie is stronger for it. It is an entertaining ride, and just plain old popcorn-eatin’ fun! I give it a 7.5 out of 10. It’s good, fun adventure that doesn’t pander at the kids, and doesn’t just try to sell them action figures (although, there certainly are action figures and fast-food tie-ins, and oh how I would love a Fantasticar!). Rise of the Silver Surfer understands that the adults can like these movies, too.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Wait Till Your Father Gets Home is Both a Reflection of 1972 and Today!

In 1989 The Simpsons aired their Christmas special, and for many, this was something totally new, a depiction of a dysfunctional nuclear family that seemed more familiar to many families than what was depicted on typical sitcoms. In the beginning that show had dysfunction, but its popularity was largely due to its heart.

However, when that show was aired, not once do I remember it being compared to, what seems to me, its obvious predecessor, Wait Till Your Father Gets Home. With Season One released as a Hanna-Barbera Classic Collection by Time Warner last week, it has become apparent to me what an overlooked treasure this show is.

Wit Till Your Father Gets Home was originally aired in 1972 and features the voice of Tom Bosley as Harry Boyle, an understanding father trying to understand a vastly changing world. His neighbor is conservative, way to the right, terrified of the communist threat to America, and thus runs a crack outfit of pseudo militants, The Vigilantes, bent on bringing justice and safety to their quiet neighborhood. And so The Vigilantes stand as a great example of just one extreme.

His children, however, go to the opposite extreme. The two oldest children, Alice and Chet serve to show the bleeding-heart liberalism that was prevalent in the 70s. Just one example, is in an early episode in which the family suspects Harry of cheating with his secretary. They don’t believe him when he denies it, yet they try to understand why he would cheat, rather than chastise him for doing so. Of course, not once do they consider that he didn’t. And Harry utters, “I get treated better around here when they think I’ve done wrong.” And the largest, most prevalent theme when dealing with the kids is that Chet, at 22, refuses to get a job.

Does any of this sound familiar? Is it a case of history repeating itself, as more and more kids are frightened of entering the workplace after college? Of course, it doesn’t help that there are few jobs waiting for them.

The youngest son, Jamie, who is voiced throughout the season by both Willie Ames and Jackie Earl Haley, seems to be a prototype for Alex P. Keaton, and sign of what is to come in the 80s. The young, entrepreneurial Jamie is constantly trying to sell whatever services he has for a little extra change, and even tries to barter up the value of a lost tooth, asking why the Tooth Fairy doesn’t account for inflation.

And in the middle of all, is Mom. She is a mom of the past. She is dependent on house and husband, but is ruler of the roost at home. However, she is always supportive of both the kids and Harry. She is the sole voice of reason, even when no one is listening.

Overall, it is a very unique family dynamic that sort of encapsulates the feelings of change that were spreading through the mass consciousness. And right along side of all of this social commentary is an animation style that fits the show so well. It is very pared down, putting less emphasis on backgrounds, and more emphasis on characters, and with this minimalist approach the viewer is left with a sort of less-is-more feeling.

In the end, the best way to describe it is as Family Guy living next door to American Dad with the heart, emotions, truth and honesty of the first few seasons of The Simpsons. For those who remember this show, it is worth the purchase as a reminder of the past, and a reminder of the present as it holds up remarkably better than many sitcoms of the 70s. That, in my mind is due to the themes taking precedence over the visual commitment of painting the 70s. It’s just a family, dealing with the issues of their, and our, times.
  • The MMS HQ
  • Caballero Oscuro's Cave
  • El Bicho's Hive
  • From a Fishbowl
  • Sombrero G's Movie Mesa
  • Review According to Mil
  • The MMS Bullpen
  • The MMS Store