Monday, December 31, 2012

This Is 40 Movie Review

The Judd Apatow brand of comedy has dominated the genre for the better part of the last ten years. His influence extends far beyond the handful of films he’s directed himself into a host of other films that he’s also produced, many of them featuring actors he’s fond of using in his own films. His films don’t go for the simple gross-out and zany laughs of the Farrelly brothers. They rarely rely on shock value. They’re more like situational comedy with believable situations, unlike what you get from your average popular TV sitcom. His writing is often insightful, replete with astute observations of human behavior, even if it’s usually from the eccentric limit of the spectrum. In his latest (only his fourth as writer and director) film, This Is 40, he returns to peripheral characters created for his 2007 comedy Knocked Up, crafting a story around a married couple with two daughters and their attempts to deal with their changing lives as they reach middle age.

Special 400th Movie Review: It's a Wonderful Life

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon

Words of wisdom uttered 35 years too late for George Bailey to take them to heart. Who, upon reaching middle age, hasn’t felt that sense of loss at having failed to achieve the ambitions of youth? Who actually fulfills all the dreams he has before growing up and settling into a life of adulthood? And who among us truly appreciates the riches we have when all we can see are missed opportunities? It’s a story at least as old as the Industrial Age, when increased leisure time for most people meant the possibility of doing things most people would never have dreamed about. George Bailey has become an enduring cinematic character because he embodies all those universal characteristics of failed ambitions and dreams deferred or lost. George believes his life is disappointing and sad. This is just another aspect of his universality. For it sometimes takes an outsider to point out just how fulfilling our lives truly are – in fiction anyway.

The Fitzgerald Family Christmas Movie Review

Every family has troubles and internal drama. It’s very easy to spot it in other families, but to turn the lens inward and examine your own circumstances is difficult. We have a tendency to always think of ourselves as reasonable despite evidence to the contrary. Harder still is to turn a literal lens onto a family’s problems and conflicts and shape it from paper to screen into a compelling story that people might learn something from. Edward Burns has been trying to do that since his independent filmmaking career began auspiciously more than fifteen years ago during the American renaissance (which turned out to be the last dying gap) of indie films.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jack Reacher Movie Review

It has been so long since I’ve been both truly surprised and genuinely thrilled at the movies that I’d almost forgotten the feeling, but Jack Reacher reminded me of exactly the reason why I love sitting in a darkened cinema several dozen times a year. It is not the best movie I’ve ever seen. It’s not even the best movie I’ve seen this year. But it did exactly what I expect an action thriller to do and it did it competently, excitingly, originally, and without pandering to the lowest common denominator audience members. I loved this movie. I loved it almost unequivocally. I loved it for all the reasons it could have been a standard genre film, but wasn’t. Loved it for all the ways it managed to enthrall me from one minute to the next. Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote the hugely popular (though not well-liked by me) The Usual Suspects, adapted the story from the eponymous character created by author Lee Child and more specifically from one of the sixteen books featuring Jack Reacher as the main character.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Bourne Legacy Movie Review

Tony Gilroy, so desperate along with Universal Studios, to continue the cash cow of the Jason Bourne film series that he personally crafted and adapted from books to films, went ahead with a fourth film even after Matt Damon, the series’ eponymous hero, bowed out. How can you have a Bourne film without Bourne? They could have decided to make it something like the Bond series, replacing the actor periodically as they age out of the role, providing the character contemporary problems to confront. But then it would have run the risk of copycat syndrome, I guess. So instead Gilroy, with the help of his brother Dan, decided with The Bourne Legacy to keep it all in the same universe, but provide a new protagonist in Aaron Cross, a super-assassin involved in a program similar to the Treadstone project that created Bourne. It’s an expansion of the Robert Ludlum series of books, taking the title, but nothing of the story, from the fourth book, which wasn’t even written by Ludlum. Confused? It doesn’t matter because The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum had already deviated far from Ludlum’s novels.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Slow going with the reviews

I've had a hard time motivating myself this month to plow through the reviews of the films I've watched. So I have a backlog and I just keep watching more movies rather than write. My original goal when I started this blog was to write on every movie I watch. I've come pretty close to keeping up with that.

Now I'm not only behind in reviews for the end of the year trying to cram them in before the Oscar nominations on January 10, but I'm behind on basic film viewing. I have so many films in the cinema to see now and I lost quite a bit of time this week because I was sick on Monday and Tuesday, my days off from my regular paying job. Now we've got Christmas coming, I've got my own party I'm throwing tomorrow, which requires all day preparation. Then I'm working every day until next Friday. So I will try to get through it all, but a lot of films and reviews may have to wait until after the new year.

Also, I'm seriously considering re-evaluating my approach to what I choose to write about. After nearly three years of this, it's getting to be too much of a commitment to write a review for every movie I watch and it leaves so little time for other, perhaps more interesting, projects I'd like to tackle here. More on this subject after the awards season wraps in late February.

Rust and Bone Movie Review

Living principally on a diet of Hollywood cinema, it would be easy to believe that there’s only one way to tell a story of physical disability. American movies handle similar material in roughly the same formula again and again. Even when it’s done competently, it’s not any more interesting or groundbreaking than the last time it was done well. This year, French cinema has offered up two examples (at least among films that found American distribution) of the way the film medium can tell a story of a character with a severe physical handicap and not make it maudlin, manipulative, and utterly predictable. The first was The Intouchables, which, had it opened later in the year, would almost certainly be a serious awards contender. The second is Rust and Bone, which has recently generated some Oscar buzz. Both films have been nominated for the Golden Globe for Foreign Language Film, but Academy rules limit one film per country and France selected the former.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Sensibility wins out over sensitivity

I'm not immune to the devastating emotional impact of the school massacre in Newtown, CT. It was a terrible tragedy and I can't imagine being a resident in that town, let alone a parent of one of the murdered children.

But at the same time, I think we have a tendency to, in the name of being sensitive, reduce or eliminate anything that could possibly cause discomfort to anyone affected by tragedies of that nature. Movie studios reduced the scope of their premiers for the films Jack Reacher and Django Unchained, both violent films featuring their fair share of gunfire. In the name of good taste, I have little problem with that. There's a difference between reveling at a party for a violent murderous film days after an unspeakable act of violence killed 26 people, 20 of whom were small children, and leaving in a joke that, within the context of the film, has nothing at all to do with actual child murder.

The joke involves references to child murder which, of course, in light of what happened last week, takes on an entirely new meaning for most people. Certainly, many people watching the film will immediately call to mind the horrors of watching the news reports. Perhaps as an artistic decision it might have been wise for Apatow to remove the joke because who wants an audience thinking of actual real life child murders in the middle of a comedy? But if the joke is removed simply because it could make some people uncomfortable, then we cross the line into that territory I dread we will continue to fall deeper and deeper into: nobody should ever feel bad about anything ever. We see this attitude constantly and quite frankly, I think it's making us into a nation of frightened little kittens.

So I applaud Apatow for making the decision to leave the joke in the film if for no other reason than that it might make people briefly uncomfortable only to soon discover that nothing terrible comes from that fleeting feeling.

Let's please stem the tide of transforming ourselves into a nation of pussies.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jiro Dreams of Sushi Movie Review

Visually splendid, but lacking depth, David Gelb’s Jiro Dreams of Sushi, certainly left my mouth watering for the delectable raw fish preparations that have exploded in popularity in the last decade. The Jiro of the title is the 85 year old chef and owner of a tiny ten seat sushi restaurant in a basement in Tokyo. It has twice been awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide, an honor that suggests it’s worth a trip to that country just to eat in the restaurant, where the menu is determined based on quality and availability that day, and perfection is the only standard by which Jiro judges the food.

Monday, December 17, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: Empire of the Sun Movie Review

There are three images that stand out in Steven Spielberg’s WWII drama Empire of the Sun that help define the film as a coming of age and loss of innocence tale. The first is of a boy becoming separated from his parents in a throng of Chinese citizens fleeing Shanghai as the Japanese invasion begins. The second is the same boy being slapped in the face by a Chinese household servant whom he has probably spent his short life bossing around. The third and most powerful is when the boy witnesses the flash of light from the Nagasaki bomb, a moment that heralds both the boy’s passage into a new world and more grown up life and the loss of innocence of humanity, which had definitively demonstrated the ability to destroy itself.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King Movie Review

J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy must pack so much into those novels that it’s a minor miracle they were ever made into successful films. I’ve never read the books, of course, but you get a sense by the third installment of director Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy of adaptations that the final book is replete with an abundance of minor and secondary characters all requiring a closing to their arcs. The effect is a film that is bloated and overblown, but at the same time a visual wallop and a great piece of entertainment filmmaking.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Hitchcock Movie Review

There is a speech delivered by Helen Mirren in Hitchcock that begins bluntly and forcefully, before becoming one of those acting moments that gets played over and over again at awards shows. It’s a moment of performance that can so quickly and easily become overwrought, but then you realize that Mirren is an actress of incredible skill, subtlety, and professionalism that she won’t let her performance overshadow her character. She plays Alma Reville, the great director Alfred Hitchcock’s long-suffering wife and behind-the-scenes collaborator. She holds the film together and although Hitchcock is ostensibly concerned with the making of Psycho, that’s really just a backdrop for the way their marriage functioned and occasionally faltered.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

25 Years Ago This Month: December 1987

Movie release schedules were not all that different 25 years ago. Studios saved their best films for the very end of the year, just like they do today, in order to be fresh in awards voters' minds. The result is that a lot of deserving films released earlier in the year are largely ignored. The December 1987 film releases garnered a combined total of 28 Academy Award nomination. If we add The Last Emperor, which had a limited release in late November followed by a wider December release, that makes 37 nominations spread over ten films.

In Empire of the Sun, Steven Spielberg returned to WWII, subject matter that has been at the crux of no fewer than six of the films he's directed. Christian Bale starred in the film about a boy from a wealthy British family living in Shanghai who finds himself in a Japanese internment camp after the occupation begins.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Life of Pi Movie Review

I have never agreed with the general sentiment that “the book was better than the movie.” This has always seemed a meaningless assertion to me. Books and movies might set out to accomplish a similar task – telling a story – but the ways they go about it could hardly be less similar. Books have the space to fill in details you can’t possibly bring to light in a film. A reader is privy to setting descriptions, histories, character development and inner thoughts that often can’t be represented on the screen. A movie does the imagining for the viewer. Whereas a book allows a reader to visualize images evoked by the words on the page, a film director, cinematographer, writer, etc., present their personal visualizations, which most likely don’t mesh with yours. What we need to test is whether or not the film adaptation of a book is 1) some sort of faithful adaptation and 2) good on its own terms by the standards laid out through cinema history. It doesn’t matter if the movie tells the same story in the same exact way as the book. All that matters is that the movie works. Does it draw you in? Do you learn enough about the characters to care about their fates? Is the story moving?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers Movie Review

Eowyn tests Aragorn's fealty to his beloved in The Two Towers.
As much as I loved The Fellowship of the Ring is as disappointed as I was in The Two Towers. Except in its magnificent closing epic battle, it failed to inspire a sense of awe. Everything I admired about the first film was largely absent in the second. This includes the focused storytelling that had as its centerpiece a group of men on a quest. Now the fellowship was fractured, it felt like three different stories. And the toggling back and forth left me feeling impatient and restless. I don't know that there was any way for screenwriters Peter Jackson, Philippa Boyens, and Fran Walsh to get around that. It's a style of 'cutting' that works fine in the format of a novel, but for a three hour plus film it grows tedious.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

The Last Emperor Movie Review: 25 Years Ago

The Last Emperor was released in New York and Los Angeles 25 years ago last month, but received its wide release in December 1987. So I revisit the film in between the two months. Look for a new 25 Years Ago review later this month when I take a look at Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun.

What a strange film is Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor. Twenty-five years later it still has a powerful resonance. It remains a gorgeous visual piece with remarkable costumes, art direction, and set decoration. It helps that the production was given unprecedented access by the Chinese government to film in the Forbidden City. I’m not sure any set could stand in as effectively for the real thing, which is imposing with its mammoth surrounding walls and impenetrable gates that keep the young emperor locked away for all of his youth. But here is a historical epic about a man who is not a hero. He made no great impact on a way of life, or any government, or even a great number of individuals for that matter. Although the story is about the man who happened to be the last imperial ruler of the old feudal China, it is really a historical view of a China in transition to a Republic and then a Communist state, with a passive hero at its center.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Silver Linings Playbook Movie Review

Director David O. Russell has become something of a specialist in staging chaotic family scenarios with emotions running to a fever pitch and pushing the comedy of the moment nearly to the breaking point. He did it several times in his sophomore effort Flirting with Disaster, which had Ben Stiller on a cross-country search for his birth parents, and then most recently in The Fighter with boxer Mark Wahlberg and his girlfriend, played by a tough Amy Adams, squaring off against his seventeen or so sisters. In Silver Linings Playbook, his newest film that he both directed and wrote (adapted from the novel by Matthew Quick) brings together just about every character, lead and supporting, under one roof for a scene that would be greatly comedic if it weren’t also somewhat tragic at the same time. It’s a scene that I thought just about went over the edge of reason, but Russell brings it back to earth before things get out of hand.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Anna Karenina Movie Review

The classics of Russian literature don’t tend to have definitive film versions, though it may be that Tom Stoppard’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina changes that – for a while anyway. There was a Hollywood version in 1948 starring Vivien Leigh, but it has not stood as an important work of cinematic adaptation. Generally speaking, the literary adaptations from Hollywood in the Golden Age offered little in making the works cinematic. They were so often (and still are, for that matter) like filmed stage plays with sumptuous sets and intricately patterned costumes and British actors donning an air of pomposity. These films feel stifled by a desire to be ‘true’ to the material, making for very boring viewing experiences. To read Anna Karenina should not be the same experience as it is to view it.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

It's the busy season

I'm now entering my busiest time of year for movie viewing and trips to the cinema. Back in the day I used to see between 75 and 100 films a year in the cinema, with about half of those coming between November and January. The reason for this is obvious to anyone who follows movies and the awards season: most of the best movies, or the prestigious movies anyway, are released in the final months of the year to qualify for awards and remain fresh in voters' minds. I happen to live in one of the two most important film markets in America, but even still, many awards contenders don't open in my area of Long Island until late January or even early February. I often take a trip into Manhattan to play catch up in early January or for films I simply don't want to wait for.

You see, I have made it a point since 1997 to see everything nominated at the Oscars - from Best Picture to Best Sound Editing and Best Foreign Language Film. This is mainly a way to give some focus to my viewing of new films and to remain relevant at the end of the year, but also because I just love the Oscars. It's the only award in film that I really care about, excepting passing interest in critics groups awards and the awards given at the Cannes Film Festival. Part of this project involves anticipating what I think has a chance of scoring a nomination in some category somewhere, so I end up seeing a lot of crap because maybe it will get a nod for Best Song or Best Costume Design. It also means I see lots of movies that don't get nominated.

What it really means is that by the end of November I've got an unmanageable list of movies to see. If you look at the left hand sidebar showing the last 10 movies I've watched, you'll find all of them are 2012 releases, six seen in the cinema.

So in the next six weeks, expect to see regular reviews of new films, but a relative dearth of older film reviews.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph Movie Review

Wreck-It Ralph feels like it should have been a Pixar Animation Studios project. The premise is exactly the kind of clever idea they latch onto and develop into viable material for an animated feature film. The screenplay by Phil Johnston and Jennifer Lee is from a story by Johnston, Rich Moore, and Jim Reardon. Moore, who learned his animation directing chops on “The Simpsons” and “Futurama” – where he likely learned a great deal about handling culturally relevant material – directed. It concerns a video game villain, the titular Ralph, who has grown weary of destroying a building, doing it well, and then looking on as the game’s hero is rewarded with medal upon medal. Thirty years of the same actions over and over will do that to a guy. He desires the chance to be the hero for once, but his Bad-Anon support group (featuring one of the Pac Man ghosts and King Kroopa from Mario Bros.) tell him he can’t change who he is. You see one of the film’s object lessons in the works from here.

25 Years Ago This Month: November 1987

25 years ago this month saw the release of the film that brought Denzel Washington his first Oscar nomination, a nod for Best Supporting Actor in Richard Attenborough's based-on-fact film Cry Freedom. Washington plays South Africa apartheid activist Steven Biko, who was killed under suspicious circumstances while in police custody. Kevin Kline plays his friend, journalist Donald Woods, whose books brought the case worldwide attention.

Dark Shadows Movie Review

I’ll say off the bat that I was primed to severely dislike Dark Shadows, Tim Burton’s updating of the 1960s daytime soap opera about a gothic manor in Maine with strange supernatural occurrences. I have been less than enthusiastic – to put it diplomatically – about most of Burton’s work in the last ten years. When I think back on his career as a director, what I’ve enjoyed most are his films that are straight comedies. He has a real knack for the bizarrely funny and whimsically macabre. I think of Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks!, and Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure as his most enjoyable features. Recent films like Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Alice in Wonderland have been simply odd, overblown and bloated. Then there was the matter of the advertising for Dark Shadows, which I thought made it look like a 1970s kitsch piece featuring yet another in a long and increasingly exhaustive series of offbeat Johnny Depp performances (his eighth in collaboration with Burton). Imagine my immense surprise to find a lighthearted homage to a TV series that Burton and Depp both claim to have loved as children.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Flight Movie Review

Most of us remember that remarkable incident of averting an air disaster when Captain “Sully” Sullenberger successfully ditched a commercial airliner in the Hudson River alongside the Manhattan skyline after losing both engines to a flock of geese on takeoff. That man, otherwise ordinary except that he was suddenly and unexpectedly elevated to hero status for saving the lives of all on board, became an overnight media sensation. The talk shows wanted him for five minutes on air. Magazines wanted to delve into his personal history to find something in his past that led to his calm during what appeared to be certain death for everyone. What if it had turned out that he was drunk or high on drugs at the time? Would that negate the good he did in saving lives? What if the hypothetical alcohol in his system actually helped him relax enough to safely land the plane on the water? How does that change our approach to him as a human being and as a pilot?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Take This Waltz Movie Review

“New things get old.” So says an older woman to a group of younger women in Sarah Polley’s second directorial feature, Take This Waltz. The scene has three younger women showering, their bodies in full view of the camera, alongside a group of older women for whom time has quite clearly caught up with their bodies, wrinkled and sagging as they are. Yes, new things get old, whether we’re talking about the supple physical beauty of youth or a husband after five years of marriage. One of those young women needs to keep this refrain in mind as she considers an affair with a neighbor.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Lincoln Movie Review

2300 years ago Euclid proclaimed as one of his common notions that things equal to the same thing are also equal to each other. This is a founding principle of geometry and necessary for the beginnings of modern engineering. It seems self-evident, doesn’t it? Of course Thomas Jefferson held it self-evident that all men are created equal and endowed with unalienable rights such as liberty, yet he was himself a slave owner. In Steven Spielberg’s masterful biopic Lincoln, the 16th President and drafter of the Emancipation Proclamation tries to rely on Euclid’s notion to help him in his decisions regarding slavery that will impact the United States and the terrible Civil War that was entering its fifth bloody year.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Cloud Atlas Movie Review

As a film critic I would love to have the luxury of seeing every new film and writing about it. As this is not a paying job for me, I have to pick and choose what I see, mostly based on personal preference, but often choosing films that are popular or important benchmarks. The subject matter of Cloud Atlas hardly interested me, although the filmmakers involved certainly did. The Wachowski siblings, Andy and Lana (formerly Larry) brought us The Matrix trilogy, the first installment of which I think is filled with wonderful vision, a great story, and brilliant use of visual effects. I found Tom Tykwer deeply intriguing as a filmmaker with both Run, Lola, Run and The Princess and the Warrior, although admittedly I know nothing of his work in the past decade. Together these three directors decided to bring David Mitchell’s complicated 2004 novel which involves six stories in different time periods and characters that exist as alternate versions of themselves across time and space.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Skyfall Movie Review: Bond 23

The idea that the James Bond film series needs to be rebooted doesn’t make a lot of sense. Nearly every film is a reboot because there’s virtually no continuity between films. Daniel Craig’s first outing as the superspy 007 in Casino Royale was a reboot of sorts in the sense that many of the things the Bond series had been known for were ousted. Neither Miss Moneypenny nor Q made appearances. With Skyfall, Craig’s third turn as Bond, it becomes clearer that the new series is something akin to a reboot because many of the old comforts have returned.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Sessions Movie Review

One of the universalities of being human, one important thing that sets us clearly apart from the rest of the animals, is the pleasure, both physical and emotional, derived from sex. To make that physical connection with another person is a rite of passage we set for ourselves early on. It’s a mark that nearly every teenager desperately wants to reach. What if you were stricken with polio as a boy, your body left stiffened by a disease that wreaks havoc on your muscles? You’re not exactly paralyzed in the way most of us understand that condition because you have normal sensory perception throughout your body. You just can move anything. What if you reached middle age never having felt the exultation joining together sexually with another person? This is the beginning of the story in The Sessions, a true story about poet and journalist Mark O’Brien, who was also the subject of an Oscar-winning short documentary called Breathing Lessons in the late 90s. O’Brien documented his quest to lose his virginity in an article titled, “On Seeing a Sex Surrogate.”

Monday, November 12, 2012

From My Collection - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring Movie Review

More than anything, I want movies to surprise me. I want to see something that I haven’t seen before, or see an old story presented in a unique way. I want my expectations to be exceeded. I never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I wasn’t interested as a child. To this day, the genre of fantasy fiction doesn’t particularly appeal to me. In December 2001 I went to see The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring because it was expected to be one of the biggest movies of the year. It was the subject of countless magazine and newspaper articles about the 15 month shooting schedule in New Zealand with Peter Jackson painstakingly creating a world on film that was already known to millions of loyal fans of the novels. I walked out of the theater both exceedingly surprised and deeply moved by both the story and the unbelievable craftsmanship involved in the making of the film.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Master Movie Review

I’ll say this much for Paul Thomas Anderson: he’s one of the few filmmakers working within the Hollywood system who can consistently make gutsy and challenging films. He doesn’t pander to any audience; his endings don’t come wrapped in tight packages; there is no paint-by-numbers to tell you exactly how to feel and when. He creates emotionally and spiritually complex works that often leave us scratching our heads and that maybe, just maybe, leave us a little better off as human beings than when we walked into his world.

With that said, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by his films. I don’t object to their complexity or challenges, but I have misgivings about the general lack of joy to be found at any moments in The Master. Boogie Nights and Magnolia are films I can watch over and over, finding joy amid the tremendous sorrow every time. There was real vibrancy and panache in Anderson’s directing style. He combined the dexterity of Altman maintaining multiple characters and threads with the energy of Scorsese. Then he started to go quiet.

Seven Movie Review

Although I saw this when I was already 17, it scared the shit out of me. When I saw it for the first time in the cinema I literally fell out of my chair at the moment when the 'sloth' victim turns out not to be dead. This was one of the most terrifying cinematic experiences I've ever had.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

Seven is the one film as I reached toward adulthood that really got under my skin in a way that terrified me. This police procedural thriller about a sadistic serial killer was created through the use of set design and cinematography that are just unnerving. I can’t recall another film of its kind that left me so shaken. It’s unrelenting not only in its sick and ghastly murders, of which we only ever see the aftermath, but also in its dark and depressing tone, designed specifically to destroy the audience’s will to go on, the way the rain continually pours down on the movie’s unnamed city and casts a gloom outside every window. Even the ending, which ties everything together and offers some explanation for the apparent irrationality of the killer, is almost entirely without hope or a denouement.

25 Years Ago This Month: October 1987

David Mamet's first film as director was House of Games, one of the great films about confidence men.

Before Kathryn Bigelow was the first woman to the Oscar for Best Director, she once directed a cult vampire film called Near Dark starring Bill Paxton.

The late 80s saw a string of films similar to Like Father, Like Son, in which two people change bodies for a while. In this one medical doctor Dudley Moore and his son, a high school track runner played by Kirk Cameron, accidentally exchange minds after ingesting an Indian potion of some sort.

Movie List: Top Ten Friday the 13th Deaths

So now that I've posted reviews of all the Friday the 13th films along with lists and ratings of all the deaths in those films, I've compiled my Top Ten of all those deaths. For this list I have not considered deaths of Jason or accidental deaths or deaths at the hands of anyone else. Only those perpetrated by Mrs. Voorhees (Friday the 13th); Roy (Friday the 13th: A New Beginning); and Jason (Part II; Part III; Part IV; Part VI; Part VII; Part VIII; Jason Goes to Hell; Jason X; Freddy vs. Jason) have been considered.

In retrospect, my individual ratings were sometimes a little skewed. I have included the rating I applied when I reviewed the film, but in some cases I have chosen a "7" over and "8" because my reaction now is stronger.

Honorable mentions:
- In Friday the 13th Part V: A New Beginning Junior's head is chopped off while riding his motorcycle in circles whining to his mother about getting his ass kicked earlier (6).
- In Friday the 13th Part 3 Vera has a harpoon fired directly into her eye from long distance (7).
- In Friday the 13th Part 3 Andy gets cut in half as he walks on his hands (6).
- In Freddy vs. Jason Freeburg is sliced completely in half by a machete (7).

10. In Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI Sissy is pulled through an open window, her head is twisted around and removed (8).

Modern Classic Movie Review: The Silence of the Lambs

I probably saw this movie sometime when I was in high school. I was fairly familiar with it and I found it pretty damn frightening. It's not quite a horror movie in the same vein as a slasher film, but I thought it worth including because it's a variation on horror and it was part of my childhood and youth.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

The killer's gaze is turned back on the audience, turning the power structure of the horror film around.

The Silence of the Lambs turns the serial killer and slasher film genre on its head by crafting the most compelling character not as the killer whom the FBI is hunting, but as the already convicted Hannibal Lecter, who sits in a basement cell and may have crucial information to help them catch their man. More remarkable than that is that everyone remembers Lecter as this imposing and frightening villain, a role that helped Anthony Hopkins win the Best Actor Oscar, but he is on screen for all of 16 minutes. That speaks to the power of seduction that he possesses.

Modern Classic Horror Review: Scream

This is the natural closing to my personal journey because it was released during winter break of my first year in college. So I was at the beginning stages of becoming a full-fledged adult and being finished with things like getting scared by horror movies. That said, this was a cinematic experience that genuinely frightened me. This was a slasher film to put a cap on a generation's worth of slasher films that relied heavily on certain conventions. I still think it's a fantastic horror movie, but its effect has certainly worn off and been done to death in the intervening years.

Click here for a list of other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

By the end of 1996 it had been so long since a genuinely scary horror movie had been in wide release that it seemed like the genre might be dead forever. Our old friends Freddy, Jason, and Michael had been flogged into oblivion and people were well attuned to the genre conventions resulting in audiences that were a lot smarter than those going to see slasher films 15 and 20 years earlier. These conventions included things like the couple that has sex getting killed; the drug users getting killed; dumb female characters always making the wrong decisions and getting dead as a result; idiot police officers; revenge motives rooted in a complicated back story; obvious suspects as red herrings; and on and on. Kevin Williamson was an aspiring screenwriter when he wrote Scream and eventually sold it, after which legendary horror director Wes Craven was hired to direct.

Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers Movie Review

Because this was released when I was already nearing the end of high school it wasn't really a part of my horror culture when I was a kid. I watched it once when I rented it with a friend, but honestly that was probably when we were in college, past my cutoff year of 1996 for this October series.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

As incredible as it was that Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers improved upon the quality, or lack therof, of Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers, that’s nothing compared to Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers, the series’ sixth film. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to criticize here, but taken as a whole experience it’s more fun, better written and acted, and scarier than most other horror sequels.

Thanks, Sandy

Hurricane Sandy set me back a little bit. I didn't get to watch a couple more movies I wanted to add to this October project because I was without power all day yesterday. The last two reviews go up today and I still have two horror reviews to write that I hope to post today. Time permitting, I will still watch one more to make it five horror reviews today.

After today it's back to my normal film viewing and posting schedule. And I hope not to watch any horror films for quite some time. I'm tired.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers Movie Review

My familiarity with the Halloween series was always less than Friday the 13th and Nightmare because I found these films much scarier. I was even less familiar with this particular sequel and found watching it again that I remembered little of it in detail.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

You don’t expect any horror movie sequel to be better in any real measurable way than its predecessor. Sure, I feel that Friday the 13th Part VII: The NewBlood is the best in the series, but that’s splitting hairs. Halloween 5: The Revenge of Michael Myers breaks the rule by being a noticeable improvement over Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers. Interestingly, the main characters and the story are not all that dissimilar. The differences are all in Dominique Othenin-Girard’s direction.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Witchboard Movie Review

This one I also wonder if my older sister had it on video. I really only remember seeing it once. I think it was already 1992 when she was living back home, so maybe that's why I remember it so well.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

Let me be clear up front that any limited praise I offer for Witchboard, a 1986 horror movie about a mishap with a Ouija board, is not meant to suggest that it’s worth seeking out. It is, by almost every measurable calculus, a hilariously bad movie. But it happens to aspire to do something more than most horror flick filmmakers even dream about. Whereas the majority of horror films, especially in the slasher sub-genre of the 70s and 80s, are interested solely in killing off a bunch of indistinguishable characters who have nothing interesting to say, and doing it in varied and gruesome ways.

Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers Movie Review

I was always much less familiar with the Halloween sequels growing up probably for a combination of two reasons: they weren't as popular and so didn't play on TV as often and they scared me a lot more so I avoided them.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

A writer’s strike was responsible for the production of the horror movie spoof Student Bodies in 1981 as well as Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers in 1988. The differences are astounding. Whereas the earlier film was already written and given production backing by a major studio looking for non-union projects, the latter was written slapdash by Alan B. McElroy and a team of story writers in a matter of days to get it finished before the impending strike was to begin. Believe me, it feels rushed.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Halloween II Movie Review

I had very little memory of this first sequel. Some of it looked familiar as I watched it for this series, but mostly I don't think I ever really saw it.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

These days film sequels are almost obligatory when it comes to any big budget action, comedy, or horror film. Studios are always looking to create a franchise cash cow that they can continue milking for minimal investment and effort. But there was a time when sequels were mostly limited to horror films. It was a pretty obvious fit. Films produced in the horror genre were traditionally low budget films written quickly and on the cheap, using casts of mostly unknown actors (though many of these such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Bacon, Johnny Depp, and Jennifer Aniston have gone on to become stars), shot and produced in an almost guerilla style in a matter of a few weeks. The popular ones made significant returns on investment, so sequels were usually inevitable. What’s more, they were (and continue to be) almost universally excoriated by critics because they tend to be cheap retreads of what came before. It’s insulting to people like me who spend a great deal of time watching movies.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

From My Collection: Horror Classic Review of Halloween

For me this was always one of the scariest horror movies of my childhood and youth. I'm not even sure I saw this in its entirety before my teenage years or even before college, but I'm sure I caught pieces of it here and there.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

John Carpenter’s Halloween remains one of the great classics of the horror genre with good reason. It spawned a tireless list of copycats that attempted to repeat the formulas of a low-budget film with a psycho killer picking off young people who take drugs and have sex. Unfortunately, the writers and directors responsible for films like Friday the 13th and even the Halloween sequels forgot about the great artistry that went into Halloween. In a way, Carptenter’s original film is the purest of the slasher films. It is simply constructed and executed from a smart screenplay by Carpenter and Debra Hill. It features a memorably hunting musical score by Carpenter and a faceless killer of blank expression and inexplicable motivation upsetting the delicate balance of suburban America.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Bad Dreams Movie Review

I think my older sister had this on video and that's how I came to see it. My strong memories of it suggest that I saw it more than once, though. I found it scary enough as a kid.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

The entire premise of Bad Dreams falls apart by listening to the philosophy of the Jim Jones-like cult figure at the beginning who leads a 1970s hippie youth cult known as Unity Field in mass suicide. The deepest thing he espouses is that “life and death are two different states of being.” Whoa! If charismatic cult figures only peddled such cheap nonsense, they’d have few followers. One young girl escapes the flaming death trap at the last moment and wakes from her coma thirteen years later in a psychiatric institution.

Freddy vs. Jason Movie Review

Like with Jason X, this one shouldn't even be included in this October series but for a sense of completion with bothNightmare and Friday. How could I not include it? I have it noted that I saw this in the theater, but I have no memory of that whatsoever. It was released in theaters a week before I left on a three month backpacking trip. I find it hard to believe it was still in theaters when I returned. And I doubt I would have rushed out to see it while I was preparing for such a big trip.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

I wonder how long after acquiring the rights to Friday the 13th it took New Line executives to start fantasizing a combination movie with A Nightmare on Elm Street. It took more than ten years to finally get Freddy vs. Jason into production and then released. Was it worth the wait? Does the end result provide those who were clamoring for the ultimate confrontation of 80s horror icons with a showdown worthy of the classic status of something like Godzilla vs. Mothra? I’m not so sure.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Jason X Movie Review

Just like with the previous film in the series eight years earlier, I only watched this for a sense of completion. Technically I shouldn't have even included it in this October series as it's meant to be a personal journey through my childhood memories of horror films, but I also wanted to list out all the deaths in the Friday the 13th series. Also, it just seemed wrong to leave this out. My friend and I rented this ten years ago and had good fun with it.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

I’m trying to imagine how the idea for Jason X was pitched to New Line Cinema in such a way that they were willing to give it a green light. Not only that, but it actually got a theatrical release. How do you think they sold an idea for Jason Voorhees to be frozen and then thawed out 450 years in the future so that he can continue his killing spree aboard a space ship? “Get this: Jason in space,” is the only phrase you would need, I suppose. And if that’s how it was presented, it’s no wonder that what came out the other end of production was the mind-blowingly bad film I just watched – for the second time! Yes, I watched it on a lark with a friend many years ago. How could we not? But I had blocked most of it out. Readers, I assure you that this is a true stinker with one minor – very minor – saving grace that I still found hysterical.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Student Bodies Movie Review

This was a seminal and important film for my childhood where the horror genre is concerned. I always remembered most of the movie distinctly. Watching it again I pretty much knew exactly what was coming at every moment even though it had probably been twenty years or more since I'd seen it last. This was a movie that my older sister and brother used to watch on TV and laugh through. I found a lot of it quite funny and I'd like to think that wasn't just because I was laughing along with them. Oddly enough, I probably learned about the conventions of the genre mostly from this film and as a result found scary movies more ridiculous after.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

"You Mrs. Malvert."
Before there was the horror spoof Scary Movie and long before the self-referential and convention-skewering Scream, there was Student Bodies, a little known cult favorite that should have been made on a shoestring budget by amateurs and then wasted away in a dustbin. It would have but for a stroke of luck in the form of a Writer’s Guild strike which meant Paramount was willing to bankroll non-union projects. So a ridiculous satire written and directed by Mickey Rose (a collaborator on some early Woody Allen films) with a cast of nobodies, most of whom were making their first movie and never went on to any kind of film career after, got a sizable budget to work with. It didn’t do very well at the box office, but later built a small following on cable, where I used to encounter it as a child.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday Movie Review

I rented this in high school not because I thought it would be any good or even because I thought it might scare me, but just out of some kind of loyalty to the series. I just couldn't pass up the opportunity to see this thing through to the end. Wasn't scary in the least.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

When the torch for Friday the 13th was passed from Paramount to New Line in the early 90s, the series had already gone from bad to worse before passing into Oh My God That’s Terrible. Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday pushes past the limits of “so bad it’s good” and falls into an abyss I would like to call “so bad it has virtually no redeeming value and should never have been considered and those responsible should lower their heads in shame as they fall on their swords.” It takes the whole mythos of the franchise, lights it on fire and then pisses on the ashes. It doesn’t even have the redeeming value of being movie at whose shortcomings you can laugh.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Poltergeist II: The Other Side Movie Review

This film might have scared me even more than the first one. That guy playing Revered Kane is just eerie and scary as hell. Every scene with him stuck with me for a long time, and still does really.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

In your best soft southern drawl: "Are ya lost, little girl?" Good luck sleeping now.
The success and strong positive reception of Poltergeist pretty much necessitated a sequel. Sure, most horror movies even in the early 80s had sequels following a year or two later, but Poltergeist is not your average horror movie. It has a real story. While it’s easy for most people to write off the horror genre in its entirety as easily digestible junk and not ‘real’ movies, this one had a good story and identifiable characters with real things to say. And their story was not yet complete, both in terms of the paranormal psychic terror inflicted on them and the unresolved issues of family dynamics. Poltergeist II is an admirable follow-up that delves into the story behind the psychic horror that invaded the Freelings’ home and further develops the patriarch Steven’s character as a man struggling with his inability to adequately protect his family.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan Movie Review

This one I used to catch quite a lot on cable. It contains my all time favorite death in a horror movie so it holds a special place in my heart for that. It also takes place (a small portion of it, anyway) in the city I love. But did it scare me as a kid? Probably a little, but the setting of New York City made it much less scary.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

Jason frightens some Times Square punks.

Where else could they take it, really? After a mother seeking vengeance for her drowned son; the same son come back seeking vengeance for his beheaded mother; the reins taken over by a third killer; the reins taken back by Jason; and Jason squaring off against a girl with telekinetic powers, what could possibly come next in the Friday the 13th series? Well, in Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan, we find out.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood Movie Review

This particular chapter didn't figure quite as strongly in my childhood as the two on either side of it. I'm not sure why that is. I know I saw it, or most of it, piecemeal on TV. But my memories of this were scattered.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

It becomes fairly obvious by the seventh film in the series that the Friday the 13th franchise was desperately seeking new ideas. So in Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood, instead of simply unleashing Jason onto an unwitting group of youths in the woods, screenwriters Daryl Haney and Manuel Fidello decided to provide him with an adversary he’d never seen before. That’s how we wind up with Tina Shepherd, a teenager blessed (or cursed depending on your perspective) with the power of telekinesis. Her abilities are introduced in a brief prologue in which she accidentally kills her father by causing the collapse of a dock at Crystal Lake.

Argo Movie Review

Just about everyone knows or remembers that in 1979 Iranian revolutionaries seized control of the American embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage for the next 444 days, after which all of them went home alive. The story was on the minds of nearly everyone in the country. The incident figured heavily in the sense of national pride when the U.S. hockey team defeated Russia and won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. My six year old brother was so disturbed by the story that he scratched Iran off a beautiful glass globe that belonged to my great grandfather.

The part I never knew, and what many people apparently never knew, was that six Americans escaped out the back door and hid at the home of the Canadian ambassador while the CIA worked out scenarios for exfiltrating them. Even less known than that was the method eventually used and the cover provided to bring them home safely. The real story was declassified in 1997 and has now been turned into a movie called Argo and directed by Ben Affleck. Chris Terrio wrote the screenplay based on a 2007 “Wired” article by Joshuah Bearman and on a book by the CIA operative Tony Mendez, who orchestrated the escape. Apollo 13 has been playing recently on AMC. What I remembered most about that movie was how great Ron Howard was at building suspense through a story whose outcome we already knew. Those three astronauts survived, but we feel the tension along with them because they don’t know what their futures hold. That’s how I felt during much of Argo.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI Movie Review

This is the other of two Friday the 13th films that I remembered best because it played on TV a lot at a crucial time when I was growing up. I had certain deaths from this movie in particular kind of etched into my brain.

Click here for a list of all other films reviewed and considered for this October 2012 series of horror reviews.

After a one film diversion in which a mere mortal takes the murderous reins from Jason in Fridaythe 13th: A New Beginning, the real deal Jason was brought back by popular demand. Things really start to run off the rails for this series in Jason Lives: Friday the 13th Part VI. It still has enough earnestness in its voice to believe that writer and director Tom McLoughlin’s intention was to make a serious horror film. You could read it as a bit tongue in cheek as in the self-referential moment when a woman driving a car in the woods stops short and tells her boyfriend (Hey! Is that Tony Goldwyn?) she’s seen enough horror movies to know that you don’t mess with a big guy wearing a mask.