Friday, December 21, 2012

Apocalypse Wow Part III - Don't Panic

Darkness falls across the land.  The midnight hour is close at hand.

...wait a minute, that's not the heralding of the end of the world, that's the Vincent Price part of Thriller.  That was 2 months ago.

...and wait a minute, nothing's happening.  Not even a mild inconvenience.  Well that was somewhat anticlimactic (...and just watch, by saying this, I'll have screwed us all.  Sorry folks.)

Well, screwed or bored, the fact is, I still watched the final week of apocalypse-themed films for this theme, and damned if I'm gonna let 'em go to waste!

Well, that takes care of those vampires.  Now to go break Burgess Meredith's glasses!

12/15    Last Man on Earth

OK, so you guys are still getting some Vincent Price fix here as we come to the third, and chronologically first attempt at adapting Matheson's I Am Legend.  In a break from the later two going for a bit more of an action-scientist vibe in their leads, this first version cast Vincent Price in the role (in this version named Robert Morgan.)  The story...OK, it's been three times now, do we really need to go over this again? Well, to be fair, we kind of do since each does take its own versions of the events.  Strangely enough, this version WAS also partially worked on by Matheson, though he was dissatisfied with the end results and had his name changed in the credits.

As an adaptation, despite the author's dissatisfaction, it's actually the closest in keeping with the book.  It's still not perfect, but it does line up the events closest of the three.  Most importantly, this one actually does maintain the ending (which, given how the book ends, I consider to be a considerable plus.)

As a movie, overall, I'd put it around the same level as the other two adaptations.  It's another interesting exploration of the idea of well, the title says it best.  I rather like how each of the three actors playing the lead took it in a different direction - in this case, rather than simply running and hiding, Price's Morgan actively hunts his vampiric enemies and kills them in their sleep.  He still searches for a cure, but it's also a more proactive quest to assert his survival.  This movie's take on the isolation theme becomes less a matter of fraying sanity and more a matter of desperation.  Morgan isn't talking to people who aren't there and hearing things, but when he sees the possibility for being able to be with someone that isn't one of his enemies, he is eager to make the connection last.  It becomes sad in a different sort of way.

All in all, it's a pretty solid attempt to bring the story to the screen.  I wouldn't call it one of Price's best movies (though reportedly he did like it among his works,) but I also wouldn't call it one of his worst by any stretch.  It's decent is about the best way I can put it.  It has some strong elements to add to the table, but there are also parts that sadly don't hold as well.  That said, I do have to admit, of the three endings, I actually found this one to be the most memorable.

Those dark days recovering from Hudson Hawk will forever be remembered as a low point in Bruce Willis's life.

12/16    12 Monkeys

This movie has a special place in my heart even before going into this rewatch.  This is the movie that really got me into Terry Gilliam as a filmmaker.  Prior to this, I mainly just knew him for being the guy that did the Monty Python animations.  So when I caught this movie one night on one of the networks, I was surprised to see his name in the credits.

I was also surprised to find I really, really liked this movie.  Admittedly, I can't call it his finest (cliche as this is to say, there's a reason Brazil is his most lauded,) but damned if this isn't high up there for him.  It's actually rather surprising to see Gilliam embrace his bleak side quite as much as parts of this movie do - the visions of the future we see are distanced from the comically grim world of Brazil, and rather are a much grimmer vision of things to come (though a bit of that Gilliam style does make itself known through the courtroom scenes.)  The story, loosely based on the French short La Jetée, actually presents an interesting conundrum from the initial short and builds on it - in a future devastated by a lethal virus outbreak, the leaders of humanity have started a risky program sending prisoners back in time to try and find a cure.  This actually leads to one of the things that really hooks me on this movie - time travel as a genuinely dangerous notion.  Not just for the so-titled butterfly effect, but also for the fact that being flung into another time with knowledge of the future can, and does, effect the psyche of the film's protagonist James Cole (played by Bruce Willis.)  When playing in his past/our present, what Gilliam isn't allowed to show in visual aesthetic, he makes up for in directorial style, such as scenes when Cole is put in a mental hospital, with the film's maybe-maybe-not antagonist Jeffrey Goines (Brad Pitt in the role that actually made me start to respect him as an actor.)

Alongside Willis and Pitt, the cast all prove more than up to the task, with the other two standouts being Madeleine Stowe as the doctor who gets involved in Cole's quest to try and save the future, and David Morse in a role I can't go into without giving anything away.  The script does a surprisingly good job of keeping all the loose ends tied, which is an utter bitch to do when you play with time travel, really.  I'm actually rather surprised this movie is so often overlooked when people start firing off classic twist endings for spoilers because honestly, this IS a surprisingly well handled one.  Yes, there are some clues for it, but even with those, the film never tips its hand too soon, and the final payoff is actually somewhat haunting the way Gilliam shoots it.  It's a rather curious film to realize the man worked on - while it has some of his style and even some traces of his dark comedy, this is among his bleaker titles out there.   As a final note I'd actually add this to the list of the few, the proud, the good remakes that surprisingly do exist from time to time.

"Look to the what?  Nah, I don't start advocating that for another two years..."

12/17    The Rapture

Oh man...this one.  Well, this one actually didn't give me the 'punch in the gut' feeling some of the other titles on this list did.  At the same time though, I needed to sit down and sort this film out after I got done watching it.  As it stands, I don't mind saying it's easily one of the most unique titles to make this list.

Now, bearing in mind before I begin, my initially stated proviso regarding the Rapture notion, I went into this film wondering just how it would handle the idea.  To my surprise, this wasn't like A Thief in the Night where it tried to warn of the dangers of the Rapture.  Rather, in this case, the Rapture serves as a part of a larger storyline involving Sharon, a phone operator (Mimi Rogers) going through varying degrees of a crisis of faith.  That element of faith is actually part of what really surprised me about this movie.  Michael Tolkin's script genuinely feels like it's trying to explore as many possible angles as it can on the matter.  We see how faith allows Sharon to clean up her life from when we first see her engaging in partying and swinging.  For a time, we now see her happily married and with a kid (the father played in a smaller role by David Duchovny in that post-Twin Peaks, pre-X-Files phase with longer hair that looks a bit odd at first.)  Then various things, including suspicious omens heralding the coming Rapture start to test her faith.

Surprisingly, rather than go the 'stay the course and be rewarded' route that could have made this just feel like a bit of a propaganda piece (for lack of a better word) Tolkin chooses to explore the idea of instead falling.  Sharon, her faith shaking with lack of proof, makes an irredeemable choice that, between Tolkin's directing and Rogers's acting is painful to watch unfold (and I mean painful in the good way here... ...GOD, that sounds wrong.)  The last act of the film is arguably the most surprising and where the movie takes its biggest risks - both in terms of the overarcing story and Sharon's character arc, though to be fair, the latter really IS the basis of the film.  Yes, the Rapture does play a part in the story overall, but it's still largely a secondary thread as much of the film is more about Sharon and her crises of faith.  It's a rather curious character piece with some striking individual scenes, some nice performances, and enough ambition to make it worth giving a watch to see what you think.  Personally, I'm still rather surprised by it.  While I'm not sure I'd call it one of the greatest ever, still a fascinating movie and I'd be happy to see more films take some of the chances this one did.

    "Well, I was going to welcome you to salvation among the forces of good...but since you just HAD to yell 'Freebird' you can sit and spin with all the damned for all I care!"


12/18    The Stand (parts 1 and 2)

Well, we started this theme off with one of the more wonderfully terrible Stephen King adaptations ever.  Somehow, it seems fitting that we come back to him in the last week.  Looking back though, there's a part of me that's actually a little surprised to realize this movie exists.  I mean, when you consider the book it's coming from, it's actually a bit of a surprise that anyone was willing to take the chance on adapting it into a movie . I understand it, they've talked of trying it again. I dunno guys, it worked once, but still...

That said, let me just start by saying kudos to Mick Garris for making the shot - of the King adaptations, this is still easily one of the most ambitious, and with a few exceptions, he manages to make it pay off surprisingly well for the tools he's got to play with.  It's also a little fitting this comes in the timeline where it does, given the movie is essentially King's own retake on the Biblical apocalypse - replacing the ascension into Heaven with most of the world's population being felled by a superflu and then leaving the survivors to be pitted against one another by the forces of good (lead by a Ruby Dee in a spot-on turn as Mother Abigail) and evil (Jamey Sheridan doing a pretty good job as the enigmatic Randall Flagg.  I have to give him credit here, because Flagg's very character makes him trick to pull off.  For his part, he makes more than a decent go of it.)  Like the original novel, the movie has an ensemble cast to work with, and it's really hard to pick out strong performances...at least, as far as just the first two parts are concerned (the second half writeup may be shorter simply because a lot of points will already be touched on here.)  For a made-for-TV movie, it's a pretty all star cast: among the names, Gary Sinise, Molly Ringwald, Rob Lowe, Ray Walston*, Ossie Davis, Laura San Giacomo, and Matt Frewer.  Alongside these, the first part sneaks in a couple of further surprise guests stars (Kathy Bates as a radio DJ that gets on the wrong side of the military, and Ed Harris as the unfortunate commander who has the plague break out on his watch.)  Most of the casting is actually pretty well chosen, though I have to admit on a rewatch I'm a bit shaky on Ringwald.  She's trying, I'll give her that, but she really does feel like an odd pick for the role, mainly because she looks far too old to play Frannie.

*Who, for an odd piece of trivia, is pretty much exactly who I'd pictured when I first encountered the Glen Bateman in the book.  So seeing him play the role in the miniseries was a small "...damn." moment.

In terms of how the first two nights handle the story, I am actually rather surprised at how well Garris makes his time and budget work here.  Though I do have to say - not as a dig at the rest of the miniseries, because it is good - honestly, the single best part of this entire series is in the very beginning.  The rest is largely good, don't get me wrong, but the series never quite tops part 1's  well set up sequence as we follow security camera footage of the scientists dead from the outbreak while Blue Oyster Cult's 'Don't Fear the Reaper' plays in the background.  It's a simple, effective, and downright haunting sequence to watch, and easily one of the high points of the whole series.  For the rest, the story actually survives in a lot better shape than I would have expected.  A few parts are folded into one another, and some plotlines are cut out, but by and large, for what was a 1000+ novel, Garris and his team have managed to keep a lot more of it in than they had to remove.

With these first two parts, the board is set and everyone is in their places for the chaos to come in the second half.

As they say it best on the Internet, 'This guy looks legit!'

12/19    The Stand (parts 3 and 4)

In accordance with our warning above, this entry is gonna be kind of short.  This is because, as a miniseries, a lot of the things that were good in the first two parts are consistently carrying over to these the final installments of this rather ambitious miniseries.

Though there are a few things to say for these later pieces for both good and ill.  On the good side of things, Garris does continue to keep up the pacing and doing a surprisingly good job keeping King's apocalyptic epic as intact as time and network restraints will allow for.  Further, two of the cast members in particular really come into their own in these final parts - San Giacomo as the doomed Nadine Cross, who makes a nicely understated go of her descent into insanity when she finally loses herself to evil, and Matt Frewer as the rather unhinged Trashchan Man, a pyromaniac who devotes himself to Flagg's cause.  Where Nadine is a subtle decline, Frewer plays Trash's madness with full blown crazy, and he is actually pretty creepy to watch as a result of it.

The biggest grievance I have with this miniseries overall...come to think of it, this is really the only full-on complaint, but it IS a big one, lies in the ending.  Anyone who has already seen this likely knows which part I'm referring to.  Which is a bit of a shame since the scenes building up to the scene in question are actually pretty well done.  In particular the acting really hits home some of the emotion in the confrontation to come.  Which is why it hurts when the film's made-for-TV budget comes in and ultimately derails some of the surprising emotional buildup the film had managed to score up to that point.  Now, I'll grant part of that is Garris working with what King wrote, but the fact is, it's an ending that just doesn't work well on a TV budget, and sadly hurts what could have been a great finale.

As it is, it's still on the better end of King's adaptations, with some good performances and some high ambitions going for it.  I wouldn't call it among the very best, but it's still pretty recommendable for filmed versions of his work.

"DAMN YOU, VINCENT PRICE! YOU BROKE MY GLASSES INSTEAD!"

12/20    The Day After

OK, remember how I'd used the phrase 'punch in the gut' earlier this week?  As the apocalypse films on this list go, this one was the first to do that for me.  I still remember the first time I ever saw this (no, it wasn't the original broadcast.  I wasn't even alive at that point.)  It was about a decade back when Sci-Fi Channel (back when they were still called that) was replaying it with some surprising fanfare.  Without knowing fully what to expect, went ahead with watching it.

...man was THAT a surprise.

Made back in 1983, this film was, and in many ways still is, a rather frank look at the risks of nuclear war.  Like some of the earlier features on this list, it opts to do so on a larger scale, looking at an ensemble cast of survivors caught up in this disaster (among those cast here are Jason Robards, JoBeth Williams, and a young Jon Lithgow.)

It says something that, even after the rewatch, the part of this that immediately comes to mind is still the film's famous bombing sequence.  Doing the best they could to properly simulate what a nuclear strike would look like, director Nicholas Meyer took ABC's budget to its utmost.  The resulting scene has actually aged surprisingly well and is still fairly chilling to watch.  It feels odd to say even after having just rewatched it, but this moment so dominates the first section of the movie that it almost seems to overshadow some of the memory of the buildup to it (though the final scenes leading up to the impact are also pretty well handled tension.)


and in the generosity of the season, now you too can see the famous nuclear attack sequence that legitimately freaked the Hell out of viewers in 1983.

With much of the second half, we now meet our 'lucky' survivors as they get to deal with all the joys that come after surviving the blast - fallout and breakdown of law and order, yay!
...OK, that was just wrong, but you get the idea.  Where the bombing is shocking, this is more sobering as it, again, handles the aftermath rather directly.  Radiation sickness is treated as a legitimate concern and more seriously than many films tend to be with it.  It's also in this later half that the acting really pays off, as these dire situations really get some painful emotions out of the actors.  Probably one of the single best moments for this, and actually the final scene of the movie, comes from Robards on returning home to find drifters squatting in the charred remains of his house.  Looking them square in the eye, he tries to tell them to get out of his house.  When they don't leave, it slowly sinks in to him that there is no going back.  As it settles in, the squatters come out to console him.  It's a simple moment, but also surprisingly powerful, and really caps off the film's style well.  It delivers a potent message without going too heavy-handed with it (though it did get a LOT of promotion and discussion to go along with it when it first aired.)  While the Cold War itself is no longer the issue it was when this was made, the film's message about why these weapons should be kept a close eye on is still pretty damned powerful even today.

Second only to the downhill racer building, post-apocalypse survival is one of the most prominent father-son bonding activities according to most experts.

12/21    The Road

...and so we come to the end of our trip with a heartwarming father-son roadtrip movi--

...oh.

...Never mind.

Actually, as apocalypse films go, I honestly couldn't have asked for a better movie to end this list on.  In part because this film, like Last Night, actually opts to forego a singular scenario (we never actually learn what happened to the world, though people have proffered theories.)  Rather, this movie, faithfully based on the book by Cormac McCarthy plops us right into the Hell the world has become, only showing us glimpses of the past in flashbacks by the father (played by a great Viggo Mortensen.)  All that's really shown to us otherwise is that the world is essentially on its last legs.  In this world, as we fast learn, humanity has likewise gone to Hell.  Cannibalism and brutality run rampant as people will gladly resort to anything and everything for survival.  This is one of those elements where I really have to commend John Hillcoat's direction of the movie - these horrors are dealt with without subterfuge or hinting.  This is the world this father and son live in, and it is unforgiving.  Probably one of the most intense moments of the movie actually makes this clear when we see the father is actually willing to execute his son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) rather than let him fall prey to some of the other people that are wandering the ruined world.  The fact this is the merciful act in this world says a lot.

Of course, the film isn't completely grim savagery.  While that is the mainstay of the world, there are also a few moments of quiet where we get to see Mortensen and Smit-McPhee simply be a father and son.  These moments are almost necessary in the film, really.  As the two look for supplies in an abandoned building, we get brief glimpses of their connection beyond survival.  They're simply touching moments that really strengthen the core bond that makes up the movie.  So much so that it actually winds up making the last act all the more shock and later heartwrenching for reasons I won't go into for people who haven't seen it yet.  I will simply leave it as a reminder within the film of the importance of trying to maintain some of your humanity in such a world where too much of that can get you killed.

The one other thing I have to hand to this movie alongside its strong acting (including supporting roles by Robert Duvall and Charlize Theron,) is the cinematography.  Javier Aguirresarobe paints a truly grim and desolate view of the final days of the world, and even without the human brutality, some of the shots of the barren landscape are still downright sobering in their own regard.

Yet, after how grim I've told you guys this movie is, I still have to say I'm glad it was the last one on the list.  Sure, it's depressing and at times even quite disturbing, but it does also manage to maintain that necessary ounce of humanity. And on top of that, as I said above, it's a really powerful movie on several levels.

As an additional note, because yes, I AM that kind of horrible person, I decided to do a running talley on how each of these 21 movies decided to completely cornhole the planet to see what the leading form was.

I am pleased to report the results as follows.
    Plague - ***** (bearing in mind, in some cases this is man-made, so there's a spectrum)
    Nuclear War - ****
    Unknown - **
    Biblical Rapture - **    Geological Cataclysm *
    Machine Revolution - *
    Human Instrumentality - *
    Mass Infertility - *
    Pollution - *
    Meteor - *
    Chemical warfare (sort of) - *
   
So everyone, break out your gas masks and Howard Hughes it up, cause it looks like the outbreaks JUST outdid nuclear weaponry.
   
I'd congratulate the winners, but they're just gonna try and kill us all anyway.

Well, unless we get hat-tricked in the next few hours, it appears the Mayans really aren't coming back after all.  As such, I'll be delivering the next phase of the holiday goods to you guys over this weekend, with something else to come on Christmas.

Clock is ticking, Mayans.  No pressure.

Monday, December 17, 2012

I Passed Up Silent Night, Deadly Night For This

Well, I promised you guys we'd have something over the weekend besides the Apocalypse writeups (a few more days left to go until...well...nothing probably happens.)

Given how close we're getting to the holidays, I figured it was only fitting, after the amount of time I gave Halloween, to try and feign festivity with some holiday themed reviews....then I got to thinking further.  I'll be honest, the first half of this year wasn't great.  We had a lot of stops and starts and some stretches where nothing happened.  I'm not that proud of that fact.  On thinking on that, however, I decided this was as good a time as any to be a good sport about that and discipline myself a bit to avoid this for next year.  So, alongside having a couple of good holiday films lined up for after the Apocalypse writeups, I decided to include a cinematic lump of coal for the things that went wrong.

In doing so, I opted for the cinematic equivalent of going down a mineshaft and breathing deeply until my lungs got so black light couldn't escape.

OK, maybe that's a bit much...but we'll get back to that.

So I set to work trying to find something that would really go above and beyond the call of duty as a 'punishment' movie.  There's certainly a fair number of bad holiday films to work with among the good stuff.

And then THIS came along.

I'm still trying to figure out of this movie was made because someone lost a bet, or if the fact this movie now exists WAS the bet.

That's right.  We're kicking off the festivities with the sequel nobody asked for: A Christmas Story 2.

This is one of those movies where, even from the get-go, I found myself trying to wrap my mind around its existence.  As said above, for one, no one really wanted this.  Even before this was a thing, was there anyone who left the original A Christmas Story thinking "Boy, I can't wait for the next one!"?   Nevermind the fact the original team technically already did try this with the 1994 movie It Runs In the Family - and there's a reason you don't remember that one.  Further, the original doesn't really feel like it needs anywhere to go.  Now, granted, that hasn't stopped some very good sequels from happening before (for example, one of my all time favorite action movies, The Road Warrior, was pretty detached from where the original Mad Max left off, but it still managed to make itself a strong movie regardless.)  At the same time, I mean, how much more could be said for ACS's message: it was a sort of skewed look at the classic American Christmas in the 1940s.  Slightly dysfunctional in several ways, and told through the perspective of a 10 year old kid (as relayed by his older self,) it was all pretty well covered in one movie.  Roll credits, film's in the can, let's go hit the bar before it closes cause I'm not comfortable going back home yet.

"Soon, puberty will come.  I just know it!"

I guess what I'm trying to say is, I couldn't see any reasonable justification for why this movie had to exist.  I mean, even IRitF at least could say it was trying to explore another adventure in the lives of the Parker clan, how much else can they do with another Christmas?

I suppose we can take some solace that Stern's chin decided it was above this movie at least.  But then, the chin on its own doesn't have to pay for food and utilities, so that does kind of force the rest of the body along here.

It turns out, not a whole lot, really.

This sequel (which, as fun trivia goes, involved none of the original people behind the first movie) moves the clock forward to 1946.  Something has apparently gone drastically wrong in those 6 years or so between these two movies: Ralphie's become a bizarre simulacrum of his former self with his young head lashed onto a grown up body, and as Darren McGavin experienced the sweet release of death before this movie came out, his role has been filled in by the ghost of Daniel Stern's career.  The story is...well, it starts off feeling like they're going to replay the old story from the first time around - however, as a teenager asking for a B.B. gun wasn't exactly a big deal (and asking for a real gun would probably land this movie in more trouble than it's really equipped to handle) the film instead trades out for that old reliable of teenage ambitions - the car.  Of course, just when it seems like they're gonna replay that formula, it instead gets placed on the backburner.  Unfortunately, the formula it's been replaced with isn't exactly fresh or inventive either - as a result of his desire for a particular car, Ralphie causes damages at the local car dealership.  The owner gives him and his friends an ultimatum - pony up $85 for the damages or he calls the police.  I suppose it says something for the filmmakers at least trying to keep within the mindset of the era that none of Ralphie's concerns about prison has anything to do with the notion of being passed around like currency, as is now the common fear of the federal prison system.  What then follows are the misadventures of Ralphie and his two friends through several jobs, and subplots ranging from The Old Man's attempts to beat the system leading into a series of adventures in ice fishing and a rather awkwardly worked in last act message about growing up.

Additionally, there's a loose thread about high school crushes.  Where we learn Ralphie's definition of 'teenage awkwardness' is closer to everyone else's definition of 'future sex offender'

I will start by saying, for as much as I'm giving them a hard time about the story, I at least will also give them some credit for avoiding the impression the first ads made that this would just be the first movie with a car in place of Red Rider.  They could have gone that even easier road and made this film's already tenuous justification for existence even worse.  Sadly, the story they then offered up on its own...well, like I said before, it's certainly cliched.  So much so that I almost feel like this movie didn't actually start life as a sequel to ACS, but was instead retooled into the role, a la Silent Hill IV or Saw II (Sequels do this a lot, actually.)  It's a connection that arguably feels even more awkward by the film's many attempts to assure us that yes, while everything is different, it's still ACS.  They try as many of the tricks as possible to bring it back - they have the similar narration (I will at least acknowledge here that writer Nat Maudlin does a decent impression of Jean Shepherd), they have the elaborate fantasy sequences, The Old Man still cusses up a blue streak (arguably moreso in this movie), and they throw in callbacks to a LOT of jokes from the first film.  The effect, rather than being reassuring, is strangely unnerving.  The film feels like the cinematic equivalent of a pod person.  It looks the part, and to someone who never knew of the original, could probably pass muster pretty well.  To anyone who knew of the original film, however, there's something off about this new one.  Sure, it technically looks like it, but on some level, you just know this isn't that movie.

Despite many attempts besides these...

I want to go back to the joke callbacks here, because it is kind of a major part of what set wrong with me on this movie.  Now, admittedly, this is more just a problem sequels to comedies tend to suffer from in general.  So I can't exaclty bust this one's chops TOO badly for that.  It's just the nature of the beast, really.  At the same time, however, it doesn't really do this movie any favors.  Especially when some of the call backs are pretty obviously thrown in just for the sake of a "Hey, remember this?" moment. The most damning in this regard is their callback to the famous flagpole joke.  In the first film, it was a demonstration of kids being kids and doing stupid things on a dare.  In this film, it's more an expression of the fact Flick is either too stupid to live or has an unhealthy attachment to pneumatic tubes.

Seriously, there's no way to NOT make this scene look disturbing.

Meanwhile, the movie's original material is honestly lacking.  There's a couple of minor chuckles here and there (most notably with regards to an incredibly bitter mall Santa who gleefully antagonizes children and later cheers on his elves fighting each other.)  Most of it, however, is the kinds of jokes we've all heard before and are likely all past the point of finding amusing.  Further, they sadly lack any of the charm or warmth of the original movie to really buoy up those more predictable gags (not to say the original film is completely sacrosanct, but there was at least more of a sense of heart to it than this film gives off.)  It's the kind of film that feels like, while it couldn't be great, it could have at least been salvaged under a more careful hand.

When the rest of your year is devoted to watching children all the time, I suppose we should be thankful that you're ONLY resorting to blood sport to take the edge off.

Which, I suppose, means now is the best time to discuss the people involved in this all around.  Casting on this film is...actually, I have to admit, not really bad.  At the same time though, I can't rightly say anyone stands out, either.  The acting is pretty much passing grade here, though to be fair, much of that's largely a product of being only as good as the script allows you to be.  Doubly so in a setting like this, where much of the characters do have a sort of oddity to them that's a result of that 'second hand narration' and perspective of the narrator that was around even in the first movie.  For as much as I bust on his eerily 'trapped in pre-pubescence' appearance, Braeden Lemasters makes a decent effort of playing teenage Ralphie.  He's likable enough, if not really a strong character...but, again, that's not entirely his fault.  Likewise, as his friends, Schwartz and Flick, David Buehrle and David W. Thompson are passable with potential for doing OK comic work in the future, but likewise, this script just wasn't the one to do it for them.  The only performance I can really say actually made any sort of impact on me was Stern again as The Old Man, as even after that "Why are you doing this to yourself?" feeling passed, I was struck by just how much of his role was over the top false cursing and grumbling.  For as odd as The Old Man always was, Stern's take comes across as less grumpily paternal and more out-and-out crotchety for much of the film, only relenting some in the last act when the writers start working in some sentiment with the above mentioned 'growing up' theme.  In particular, his better moments are largely from his scenes playing off of Stacey Travis as the Mother.  He gets to turn down the crotchety side of things for a bit and just act a bit more.  The scenes are kind of refreshing after how much of his role in this is yelling.

In terms of direction, the film does at least try to feel a bit less married to the original format to degrees.  Largely because the subplots for the other members of the family feel more prominently placed this time around, in particular where Ralphie's parents are concerned.  It does provide some minor respite from the eery 'pod person' feel the movie has going throughout, but not enough to really shake the feeling off, sadly.


You may think I'm about to imply Ralphie's here due to his involvement in this film.  Actually, no.  This movie would at worst amount to a slap on the wrist.  My take on the jail time has more to do with the images attached below.

The more I try to find ways to really get into this film, the harder it becomes for me to do so.  For as much as I've written on it so far, it all really comes to the same problem - it's just not a film with a lot to it.  It's an ultimately pretty forgettable affair that they decided to tie into a sleeper hit-turned-holiday classic.  It's not even painfully awful like I was expecting (and after a time, even hoping, I hate to admit) it's simply just there.  The acting is passable, the direction is...well...let's put it this way, Brian Levant's previous coups where Jingle All the Way and Beethoven.  It's par for the course, but not really jaw-dropping.  Likewise, Maudlin's script is passable, but ultimately feels like, with a few modifications, it could have been its own movie without having to ride the coattails or leftover humor (seriously, you can cut out most of the callback jokes and lose nothing) of the original ACS in the process.  If anything, it might have inspired Maudlin to show a little more creativity here.

Sadly, the finished film remains a pretty clear 'in one ear' out the other.  My initial "Oh HELL no!" rage at the trailers now feels rather wasted considering the finished product.  It's a strangely empty sort of disappointment.  Still a punishment, just not the one I was expecting.

So, apparently my opening was a bit of hyperbole.  I expected this to be a lump of coal, and instead I got the cinematic equivalent of getting socks for Christmas.

...actually, that's not true.  I'd use the socks again after this.

Well, that covers our first holiday offering.  As promised, the next few will be better.

But first, keep with us cause this Friday we send off the final week of Apocalypse Wow!  After which we can look forward to the wasteland of the future, in which...nothing will happen!

...well, it's something at least.


In closing, permit me one last moment to scar your psyches with these - this movie's follow-up to the embarrassing rabbit costume from relatives in the first movie.

Now THIS is what I figure that above shot of Ralphie in jail would actually be for.
  To anyone who feels that disturbed by this, I'd be happy to recommend a therapist.
EDIT: ...and THIS is how I end my 50th post at The Third Row.  I can honestly say I've got nothing to say to that one...

Friday, December 14, 2012

Apocalypse Wow! - Week the Second

Well, here we are, back on time with week 2 of the Third Row's Apocalypse Wow! Event (name was changed because the reference was too good to pass up.  If you recognize it, get yourself a snack, you earned it in my books!)

With 7 days left on the clock, this one's been a pretty damn bipolar week...but no sense spoiling it for ya.  Let's go to work.

You may not think the ability to lick your own junk is that great a skill at first...
Then the apocalypse hits and there's no women and you gain a whole new reason to envy that dog.

12/8    A Boy and His Dog

You know, it's somehow fitting that we go from last week's ending us on the grim note of Children of Men to going into this week's entries with some comedy.  Of course, in keeping with the apocalyptic theme, it's pretty black comedy, so you've been warned.

Based on the novella by Harlan Ellison, this is a pretty bizarre film to jump right into.  For one thing, it only gives you the very basic knowledge of its setting (which, given some of the major elements of the story, is a bit odd.  I mean, you can still watch it without knowing the full backstory on the world, but it does add more to things if you've done a little prep reading.)  For another, the story is...actually not really there for a good chunk of the first part of the movie.  We're introduced into a world devastated by atomic warfare used in the fourth world war (no, that's not a typo.)  In particular, we follow our two...not really heroes: Vic, an impulsive young man with a rifle and a taste for sex played by a young Don Johnson, and his dog, Blood, voiced by Tim McIntire (the dog himself being played by a dog named Tiger.)  The two share a telepathic bond, which drives much of their dynamic - Vic hunts for food and supplies for the two of them, while Blood searches the area for women for Vic to...
...well, let's just say life after the bomb didn't leave a whole lot of women and leave it at that.

Most of the first half, while not really having a direct plot, is still fairly entertaining largely thanks to the dynamic between these two.  Alongside the scripting, they act off each other surprisingly well given one was voice acted - McIntire's voice and Tiger's movements make Blood an endearing and pretty fleshed out character, and Johnson, having to just act off of a dog, still does well with showing the weird sort of father-son bond the two have.  It really says something for how effective the movie is at building these two up that, when the two are separated in the third act, the scene actually feels rather sad (again, thanks in large part to McIntire/Tiger.)  The main plot beyond the sort of twisted 'slice of life' that is the first half is also actually a pretty interesting take on the post-apocalypse society - with Vic getting mixed up with an underground civilization that plays out like Americana seen through a mirror darkly and best embodied in their benevolent-cum-sinister leader played by Jason Robards.

All things considered, this is one worth seeing - the plot can be a bit scattershot in its focus, and, alongside the generally dark humor, there's parts of the setting that may be offensive to some (the ending is a BIG example of this...I suppose it says something horrible for me that I went from shock to laughter as it sunk in.)  That said, for its faults, it's still a rather sickly entertaining look at the 'nuclear wasteland' future that's become so part & parcel in fiction these days.

Incidentally, if this provides any incentive to people who didn't already know this - this movie is considered among the main influences on the Fallout game series.  So there's a bonus reason to track it down.

Charlton Heston is Pip in Great Expectations II: The Revenge

12/9    The Omega Man

Made roughly 35 years before last week's I Am Legend, we have Matheson adaptation attempt #2. 

As it's the same book, the story is largely the same, albeit it's the execution that makes things here.  One of the biggest differences coming to mind between these two versions lies in the fact this version is a bit more forthright on two matters: for one, we learn Robert Neville, played this time by Charlton Heston is not alone in the first scene as we watch him take a shot at a cloaked mutant, and for another, the movie establishes within the first 10 minutes that this isolation has definitely been getting to him.  It's a different enough take on the character that it feels odd to compare with Smith's later performance, but for what this movie wants to do with the character, Heston handles it well.  As a man traditionally known for the big heroic leads, it's interesting to see him playing a man who may be losing his mind and he actually does a pretty good job at it without overdoing it.

In this case, other survivors and mutants are much more prominently featured.  In particular, the film's female lead, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), is a welcome addition to the cast - playing a role with some bite to it, but also having a more human side without either feel too contrived.  The other standout in the supporting cast being Anthony Zerbe as the leader of the mutant survivors, Matthias.  The role of the mutants is arguably one of the biggest departures this film takes from the text, as it maintains their humanity, but also presents them as a people regressing and seeking to destroy all things outside of their culture.  Zerbe plays this in a sort of subdued cult leader style that fits the change well, as the one really notable part of an antagonist group that is, admittedly, somewhat forgettable.

Again, it's tough to compare this with the later IAL adaptation.  Both have some parts that work, and each actually handles the theme of isolation and what it does to its protagonist well and with restraint . Yet at the same time, the nature of the mutants, and subsequently the meaning of the title become lost.  Though this version does come a bit closer as it's somewhat acknowledged by Matthias in one scene and later forgotten.

Both interesting standalone movies, but still kind of hit or miss adaptations.  Here's to seeing if our third visit/first try fares any better next week.

Additionally, as random trivia goes, this movie holds a small place in film history as one of the earlier known depictions of an interracial couple and kiss between Heston and Cash.  Just some fun facts for ya.

After cleanup, the survivors agreed never to talk about the picnic in the summer of 1970 ever again...it lives now only in their nightmares.

12/10    No Blade of Grass

Holy shit.

I'm sorry I had to start it that bluntly, but damn.  This one was a lot bleaker than I was expecting.  For a movie made in 1970, this still feels horrifically relevant.  Of course, this may likely be thanks to the fact that the reason for this apocalypse - pollution leading to massive plant die-out and subsequent starvation, food riots, and breakdown of order, still feels all too plausible as a future barring some of the right steps being taken (but that's a discussion for another time and place.)  The 70s aesthetic doesn't even really feel too off-putting in this movie, and really only occasionally makes its presence known through select soundtrack cues.  Otherwise, the movie still holds up quite well as a rather grim tale of one family's attempts to survive as society crumbles around them and they seek shelter.

To that end, this film pulls no punches in how it views the crumbling old order - riots break out, gangs viciously beat, rob, and rape, and the film offers no last minute saves of convenience from these horrors.  One of the other strong elements here, both in filmmaking and driving the point home, is that the film doesn't overly embellish these things - we see them rather bluntly and the horror of the acts speaks for themselves.  This also helps the film's story to degrees as we see the ties between this group of survivors change and wear down as a result of the things they see on their journey.  Speaking of, the one other part of this that further drives home this movie's message - there is no clear 'closing' point.  The movie ends with the survivors finding neither salvation nor damnation, but simply continuing to live in this new world.  It's a grim sort of 'life goes on' that tries to create the idea of this not as a singular story that closes when it's done, but as an afflicted world that still continues even after the film stops.

The one other thing I'll say for this film, though I'm still trying to determine if I'd call it a strength or a weakness, would be its editing.  Many times over the course of the movie, certain decisions the survivors make are then foreshadowed by flashes of events to come, showing how this will effect their decisions.  Strangely, this doesn't feel that much like telegraphing the movie as it is reminding us of something these characters don't seem to realize yet - the world is no longer safe.  It's an interesting effect, albeit one that sometimes fits awkwardly in some scenes.  A nice narrative touch, if not always effective, really.  Similar can also be said for a similar effect early in the movie as the signs of the growing famine are first showing - as we intercut between scenes of starvation in other countries with some still well-fed British eating and discussing the situation.  Thematically it's a strong message - how people take these things for granted when they're happening to others.  In terms of execution though, it does feel a bit overdone and burdens the point after a while.

Still, the shortcomings are fairly minor and the overall film still remains surprisingly effective.  As the last line of the movie puts it all best "This is a motion picture.  It's not a documentary, but it could be."  As a message movie goes, a genre I have a very tumultuous relationship with, it's actually quite well handled.  Grim, but without going overboard, and really driving home that this is indeed a risk to be keeping in mind as humanity considers its next steps.

You know, I'm actually kind of convinced family restaurants already do this in order to stay perky.  They just know to hide the glowsticks from the customers.

12/11    Seeking a Friend For the End of the World

I'm gonna go ahead and start this by saying I still maintain this movie takes the prize for the most poorly marketed movie of 2012.

I almost didn't see this one based on mixed feelings from the promotions, and largely gave it a go based on some strong word of mouth.  The result compared to what the studios tried to sell was...I still wonder who greenlit it.

Based on the ads, the film looks like a rather light, goofy comedy about the end of the world and all the odd ways people choose to embrace it, often in forms of wild hedonism.  This is still in the film, don't get me wrong (including some rather amusing brief performances by Patton Oswalt, Rob Cordry, and Gillian Jacobs,) but all things considered, the larger chunk of the film is actually fairly dark.  Whether it's the first half where Steve Carrel's Dodge is a depressed man taking hits of cough syrup to get through the day, or a semi-recurring element involving people hiring others to kill them so they don't have to live to see the doomsday comet hit the Earth.  The film has a surprisingly darker side that much of the marketing leaves out. 

It's actually a shame too, as the film overall is surprisingly pretty well done.  While looking like an odd combination on paper, Carrel and Keira Knightley actually make a good team as two somewhat mismatched people finding each other as the rest of the world loses their minds around them.  It is admittedly something of a cliched character arc, but it's played well enough here that it works.  In particular come the final act of the film, which is honestly rather bittersweet to watch play out (cause when they say it's the end of the world, it is NOT false advertising.)  This is one of the few movies I remember seeing in theaters where, when the credits rolled, people didn't just get up and leave, but rather had to let that all sink in. And in some cases, cry.

I kind of hope that, like Miracle Mile (which many people compared this movie to, and some even accused this of ripping off) this movie does eventually come around more for people.  It was actually a fairly different idea (relatively speaking) for the studios to greenlight, and the fact that it was largely done in by their own inability to sell the movie is unfortunate.

Time will tell is all I can really say otherwise.  For my vote though, I still think this is among the more unexpected surprises of this year.

The kicker being, this is on the better end of Roger Corman's invocations of Poe.

12/12    Gas-s-s-s!


Before I get into this one, let me just start by saying I love the subtitle of this movie ("or: It Became Necessary to the Destroy the World in Order to Save It.")

Having said that...well, this came at a perfect time in the list.  After the last two days that could be summed up in the phrase "Shit just got real, yo," this was a release as only the great and somewhat insane Roger Corman could do it.  As his last directorial effort for American International, this movie - like several others on this list, gets its main apocalypse done fairly early on.  It's also one of the more unique forms on this list - a biological compound that kills off anyone over the age of 25.

The resulting film is a bit of a bizarre mish-mash of ideas.  Corman puts together a world in which we follow our young protagonists (played fairly likably enough by Bob Corff and Elaine Giftos) through a landscape rewritten by its new youngsters and their own weird new order.  The film plays out as a sort of bizarre mix of road movie and the odder anarchy ideas of the 70s and the various teen types are all open game, ranging from frat boys, to hippies, to black power (played in a pretty entertaing spot by a young Ben Vereen, who rationalizes his having a white girlfriend explaining "We all have our inconsistencies.")  It's definitely a movie that's a product of its time, however, and if you have a low tolerance for 70s fare, you're gonna want to pass this one up.

For my own part, I have to admit, it's fascinating, in a weird sort of way.  I mean, it's Roger Corman, which means the watermark is going to be set low, admittedly.  At the same time, the movie has just enough of a lack of self-seriousness with its subject that some of it is rather entertaining (another example coming to mind being Bruce Karcher as a character who styles himself as a modern day Edgar Allan Poe on a motorcycle.  It's a completely bizarre sidenote, but still strangely fun to watch.)  I wouldn't call this one a great film by any stretch, but if you have an affinity for cheeze, I'd say buckle in and give this one a shot.

"Merry Christmas, you--...where the Hell is everyone?"

12/13 The Day the Earth Caught Fire

Almost two weeks of this, and we're only now getting to an example of the nuclear holocaust films of the 60s?  Wow, randomizer.  Didn't expect that.  I mean, we've had some 'aftermath' stories, but this is the first that's really addressed the nuclear Hell itself.

It's also actually a pretty interesting take on the dangers of nuclear weapons - focusing less on their singular destructive powers but rather exploring the consequences of other things their use could do to the planet - in this case, sending Earth off course and heading towards the sun.  It's a premise that, just on paper, could have been downright ridiculous in its execution - surprisingly, this takes a concept that could have fallen flat on its face and gives it a good dose of maturity - even the risky gamble of trying to use further nuclear weapons in hopes of changing the Earth's fate is played seriously, complete with a haunting finale.  This approach is further aided by the film's cast, in particular Edward Judd as the protagonist, a reporter who now has a front row seat to the grim proceedings that will either save or damn all humanity.

Additionally, the film makes some nice use of fairly minimalist effects in its approach as a bonus.  Using matte paintings to give an effect of the otherwise busy city of London now utterly abandoned, as we see in the film's opening as Judd wanders the empty streets, creates a striking image that helps set the tone for the grim events the film grows into.

It's funny in a way-we get so used to the goofier sides of how the 60s' fear of the atomic age embodied itself in giant mutations et al, it becomes a surprise to remember that some films still tried to approach the possible risks seriously enough to pitch a story like this with a straight face and have it stick.

Fun fact: In the 1980s, Roland Emmerich was cut off by another driver in the city of Los Angeles.  Everyone else forgot about the incident.  Emmerich did not.

12/14    2012

...and so week 2 rounds out at this - the movie that really revitalized interest in the 2012 Mayan prophecy that got many giving serious thought to whether or not it could happen.  It also became the reason there's one man at NASA who probably dreams of punching out Roland Emmerich as this movie lead to him being the one who had to constantly assure people calling in that no, there is no actual Mayan apocalypse.

As for my own thoughts - well, I don't mind saying this is a pretty simple one to sum up: if there's one thing Roland Emmerich does well, it's disaster porn.  I mean, this has been his skill in trade since the mid-90s (with the possible exception of Stargate, and Hell with it, I still enjoyed that one.)  From Independence Day on, Emmerich proved he had a knack for wrecking people's shit with a vengeance.
...to use the common parlance.

So, in 2009, he decided he was going to send off his disaster phase in style - and by 'send it off in style' I mean he decided to completely take out the planet.  The finished film is admittedly kind of all over the place - like most of Emmerich's fare, the characters and story themselves aren't necessarily deep or involving, though in many cases he does do well with making them likable enough.  For the most part, the story is somewhat standard, albeit with a VERY upped ante.  2012 rolls around and the disasters unfold (and Emmerich goes all out on these, including taking out the Yellowstone Caldera-editor's note: the explosion is FAR smaller than it would be if it actually happened. Everything within a radius of 50 miles would be toast- and a rather entertaining Woody Harrelson in the process) as we follow our cast members in their attempts to survive.  It's the style of film Emmerich does well, so it's really hard to pick too many things in particular to really speak out for just this movie.  Though one thing I do have to give this (beyond some damned fun disaster sequences) is the fact that Emmerich does at least manage to work in some decent diversity to the cast - yeah, the primary focal point for marketing is still John Cusack and his family, but the Chinese still have a prominent role in the film, particularly in the final act, and a Tibetan family has their own plotline running throughout the movie that actually makes for some interesting viewing.

For all the ups and downs this week had to offer in mood, I'm actually really glad the randomizer ended this one where it did.  I don't care how sick it sounds to say, seeing the planet get its proverbial shit kicked in was relaxing after some of these titles, dammit.

Well, as said above, it's now 7 days left on the clock.  At this point, I'm keeping score less should something happen, and more till I go back to just full-size reviews.

Keep with us until then...especially since I'm partially lying and a full-size review goes up this weekend.  In the meantime, have a good weekend!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Apocalypse Extravanganza Part the First!

So, this is slightly later than I planned to post (life sometimes throws a derail like that) but, as promised, we've got a little something special planned for this month that isn't a barrage of Christmas movies (though we WILL be looking at a few of those later on.)

As you have likely all heard by now, and, like most of us, already realized was crap - there's a belief going that the world will end in, as of this posting, nine days.

Now, enough has come forward since to disprove this, but in honor of those steadfast few who still believe, the Third Row will salute the Final Countdown (...commence the synth now) with 21 other fictional accounts of how the world will be ultimately and completely fucked.

This is for the first week, with the next two weeks of entries following in a more timely fashion.

Right...let's do this!

I submit this picture as part of my own bizarre film theory:
The world we see in Pixar's
Cars is in fact the result of an alternate ending to Maximum Overdrive where the cars won and eventually evolved to become the dominant life form on the planet.
...I don't mind saying, I think it makes the films THAT much more interesting.

12/1 Maximum Overdrive

Ah, randomizer - you always know how to put the best foot forward on a theme....oh wait.

Stephen King adaptations are among some of the most bipolar in terms of film adaptation.  On the one hand, you get some true gems like De Palma's Carrie, several of Darabont's adaptations, and others (Kubrick's The Shining is on a line - great movie, terrible adaptation- King himself isn't a fan.)  On the other hand, there's also a LOT of forgettable to downright bad titles that happen to have King's work just used to make a quick buck.

...then you have this puppy.  This marks the first and only directorial effort by King himself, and explains why he never directed again.  Even he thinks this one's bad (in his own words, it's a "moron movie.")  Really, this movie is one of the more bizarre of the adaptations of his work - in part due to its premise (taken from the short story Trucks, this explores a world where machines suddenly gain sentience and all turn against humans) and in part for just how downright goofy it gets with its premise.  I mean, between the fact the group is largely antagonized by a toy truck with a giant likeness of the Green Goblin on the front and their own varied reactions, including a downright priceless scene best summed up in the line "You can't do this! We made you!" the whole movie is just too stupid for me to really hate.  I mean, I can't say I'm broken up that King never directed again, cause really...writing is his strong suit and he's better sticking with it.  Still, this movie has a certain sick charm to it that keeps it from being as much of a write-off as, say, The Lawnmower Man.  Plus, if nothing else, it DOES have a pretty catchy soundtrack by AC/DC going for it. Kind of a nice loose entry to start this with, really.

According to some rumors, the initial pitch for this movie simply consisted of Hideki Anno presenting this picture with the caption 'Do this to the audience!'

12/2 Neon Genesis Evangelion: Death & Rebirth/End of Evangelion

...aaaaaand we go from that levity to the OH GOD end of the spectrum.

This is one of those films it feels a bit weird to write about for me.  In part because so much of the production history is caught up in rumors and hearsay so it's hard to pick out which parts are accurate and which are just fan chatter.  That said, I can certainly see where the claims that Anno made this finale to get revenge on his fanbase for the negative backlash over the TV show's finale came from.

Before I go on, I should probably start by saying - if you haven't seen the original series of Evangelion, I REALLY wouldn't recommend these movies.  Yes, Death is supposed to be a recap, but it's a hyperfast series of cliff's notes that really don't add up to much without their context.  Scenes are flashed out of order without any real sense of the proper chronology, the film plays up more of the quick flash text cards that so irritated people in the show's ending, and really, it's more a bunch of quick cues to refresh the memories of those already in the know.

With that disclaimer aside, going into the movie itself (which is meant to substitute for the head-scratching final two episodes of the series,) I will again say 'OH GOD.'  For lack of a better term for it, the first part of this movie genuinely feels like one of the few productions I would honestly call mean-spirited.  I realize that's an odd claim to make, but when you watch Rebirth/the 'Air' section of End of EVA, you'll see what I mean.  The military siege that makes up much of the first half of the movie is as much an assault on the audience as it is on the cast members.  NERV crew are viciously cut down in cold blood and with direction that simply watches from a detached distance.  The effect makes the scenes downright unsettling, even though we don't know most of the characters dying.  From there, the film moves into its apocalypse of the second half - which, depending who you ask, is either a curious representation of a complete breakdown of humanity, or a total mindfuck.  After having watched it a few times, I actually don't really find it as confusing as I used to.  It's still visually insane, but what's going as it's explained is actually pretty clear, really.

Overall, it's a rather strange way to end the franchise (or at least end it at the time.  The Rebuild series have reopened the doors.)  Equal parts uncomfortable and intriguing with some moments dancing between 2001-grade surreal (not just visually either - one of the elements that stands out strongest for me is during the film's own Armageddon, the Third Impact, in which we're treated to a song that can be best described as what would happen if the lyrics to 'Hey Jude' were replaced with a suicide note) and some surprisingly well done action sequences. 

Actually, on the note of the visuals, I have to say I'm surprised this film doesn't appear to have been released on Blu-Ray yet.  For all that can be said for the script, it's visually quite stunning.  Scenes like the fight between EVA-02 and the mass produced EVAs and much of the Third Impact itself still look great even on the old Manga Entertainment release (which, honestly, wasn't a particularly good quality release in terms of video.)  Definitely not an entry on this list for everyone, but if you've taken the trip with Hideki Anno this far, it would feel a shame not to make the final steps.

"Psst...we just wanted to let you know.  We STILL haven't forgotten about Wild Wild West."

12/3 I Am Legend

Everyone knows a film like this one.  It's that movie that starts out good - actually surprisingly good.  Then it does something that completely craps the bed and it never really quite recovers from it.

Which is a shame, because this film gets off to a pretty strong start.  Based on the Richard Matheson novella it takes its name from (and the most recent of three adaptations of that we'll be looking at during this countdown) the movie casts Will Smith in the story's titular role as the seeming sole survivor of a plague.  To his credit, he actually carries the role pretty well - particularly during the early segments when he's only acting off of himself.  He actually does a pretty good job of showing a man trying to maintain a routine in a world where he's effectively the only one around...as well as the potential for the fact his sanity is fraying as a result of this.  The film even does a surprisingly good job in the section that follows as we learn that no, he isn't alone.  In fact, much of the first half of this movie does well keeping up a sense of tension and not overplaying its hand on the reveals. 

It isn't until the second half that the movie really starts to snag.  First with the reveal of the unfortunately lackluster designs for the film's vampiric antagonists, who are unfortunately hindered by the CGI used to design them.  Admittedly the CG isn't completely bad, however it certainly hasn't aged well, and at times does tend to sap the effect of what the first half build up to be some genuinely creepy mutations.  Doubly so since the overall look feels like it could have been done just as well with makeup and practical effects and subsequently have aged better as a result.  Further, the film's finale feels like it misses the point of the story's title in favor of a more direct reading of it.  As a result of these the last act feels rather clumsy and severely hurts the momentum built up.  The later problem is particularly sad to me since the alternate ending to the movie did seem like they wanted to acknowledge the story's original twist, but even there they pulled their punch.  The result, while a bit better than the ending we did get, still feels rather wanting.  Now granted, this weak ending doesn't change the fact the first half is still well done, and actually worth the watch.  It takes the idea of possibly being the only one left and explores many of the aspects of it, including some of the rather bleak elements.  At the same time, don't be surprised if the ending leaves a bad taste in your mouth afterward.

"No, no.  The joke goes you ask me if my refrigerator's running, then when I say yes, you--it's in the word play, you see?  Look, let's just hang up and we can both forget you tried this, OK?"

12/4 Miracle Mile

It's pretty refreshing when I can walk into a film with absolutely no idea whatsoever what I'm in for.  It doesn't happen that often these days, which is why it's actually a pleasant surprise when it actually turns out to not only be something I didn't expect, but good as well.

This was definitely one of those films - the start leaves you thinking this may be a bit of a classic, if somewhat cliched romantic comedy.  Within the first half-hour, however, the gears have shifted, and the film, in real time, unfolds with a story of a young couple who may or may not be in the looming shadow of nuclear annihilation.  It sounds a bit odd put into text like that, but the film actually handles it surprisingly well.  In one of his few times as a lead actor, Anthony Edwards is actually quite likable as a young man who, by virtue of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or right, depending how you look at it) is given knowledge that this may be the last night on Earth.  While trying to keep the information low, just in case, he tries to still seek out and save his would-be girlfriend (Mare Winningham, who also carries her role well.)  While there is a certain comedic element to parts of this film, one of its strengths is the fact it never overdoes that.  It does provide a decent bit of release from time to time, but it doesn't change the fact that things are getting increasingly more out of control, and the continued uncertainty becomes shakier and shakier of what's to come.

I can't say too much else to avoid giving things away, but I will say, for a concept that could have been played up as silly in other hands, this movie actually balances the few chuckles with the darker nature of the story well.  There's never really any forgetting what the stakes will be if the call is true, and so the film is kept reeled in in its proceedings.  Additionally, Edwards and Winningham as the main couple have good chemistry together and really make you care about their couple onscreen and want to see them escape the building storm as it hits a fever pitch.

For the longest time, this film was out of print (I admit, my first chance seeing it was...outside the usual channels.)  Learning with this project it has finally gotten a DVD release does make for a nice silver lining on this one.  It's a rather overlooked gem that I'm glad to see has regained some attention in recent years.


Cronenberg giving an expression here that seems to say "Yes, I'm in this movie, and no, there won't be any body horror to go around.  Sorry guys."

12/5 Last Night

We go from one somewhat obscure surprise to another.  In this case, the end of all things isn't an awkward secret that becomes increasingly harder to keep, but rather a known and accepted inevitability.  Curiously, this movie never actually goes into what will bring about the end - we only see the events on the final night as everyone awaits the end.

This is actually part of what makes this film stand out, really - there is no real need to focus on the end itself, and it instead can spend all its time on the people and how they handle the news.  These range from the depressed Patrick (played by writer and director Don McKellar) who plans to die alone on the roof, to his friend Craig (Callum Keith Rennie) who has successfully finagled to spend his last day making good on every last sexual fantasy he can manage to fulfill, to Duncan (David Cronenberg) a worker at the local power company who has spent the better part of his last day calling from customer to custom to reassure them that yes, they will have gas to the last possible moment, to his wife Sanda (Sandra Oh) who's been lost in the city, where order has broken down.  It's a curious sort of anthology as each of these people's plans all intersect and overlap with one another whille the clock kicks down to the last.

In a way, I'm still trying to figure out how I feel about this movie.  It's a fresh take on the idea of the apocalypse (partially since it was born of an attempt by McKellar to make a movie about the millenium phenomena that he didn't want to see get dated after the year passed,) but there's still something about it I'm trying to nail down.  The script handles all of its plotlines well, and the cast all turn in good performances (it's still weird seeing Cronenberg actually act in a major role, albeit this time with greater success than in Nightbreed.)  I think it's largely the direction that I'm still trying to get myself around.  There are some interesting sequences, such as the film's opening, where we see Sandra walking through an abandoned and rather thoroughly looted grocery store for supplies, but at the same time, the fact the film shows us people who've largely just accepted the end gives everything a somewhat restrained feeling.  It works with the idea of the film, but it did take some getting used to on watching it.  All in all, I'd still say it's a good film, and certainly one of the more unique entries for this project.  It's more just one I may need to watch again after this is over and I can just take it all in again.

"Thank you, thank you.  This next number's from our new album.  It's a little tune we like to call "Yes, We're Right!  Oh Crap, We're Still Here!"

12/6 A Thief in the Night

Rounding out the list, and part of this year, we take another spin at the wild and whacky world of Fundamentalist Cinema.  In this case, however, the results were actually surprisingly better than I was expecting.  Which feels weird for me to say going in on this one.  I mean, really weird.

On paper, this was a movie I was braced to find an uncomfortable 70 minutes to watch - a 1970s indy film about the Rapture, a notion I admit I have my own series of issues with as far as ways the end of the world could come about.  Additionally, based on the last encounter I had with this style of film, as well as years of that wondrous piece of cartooning known as Chick Tracts, I was expecting this to be absolute crap.  I have to admit, it actually fared better than I expected.  Not to say this is a must-see, mind you.  Between its very 1970s aesthetic and, again, the Rapture plotline, your mileage will certainly vary.  Despite these reservations, I was surprised to see this movie actually had a certain element of earnestness to it.  I mean, it's still a film that is designed to scare the everloving crap out of young Christians into straightening up and flying right, but it manages to do so without feeling like it also has a more current agenda it's trying to push on you as well.

As a take on the entire notion of the Rapture/Book of Revelations goes, this may be one of the closest attempts we'll ever see to trying to adapt the idea with a straight face (or as much as it can allow for, but that's a debate I'll stop myself from going into.)  I mean, it's a tricky premise to work with in film with a straight face (the idea of the 'chosen' people suddenly vanishing from the Earth en masse to leave the survivors to deal with the fact the Antichrist is now gonna make the planet into his playground) but the film makes a game attempt in doing so.  This entire idea we get the crash course on through our film's unlucky heroine, Patty (played by Patty Dunning,) who has the dubious honor of being one of the ones wondering why all of a sudden a good chunk of the world is gone...and then realizing, as everything unfolds, the vanished people are actually the least of her worries.  Outside of ideology, it's actually got some decent thriller elements to it, as the world slides into a dystopia under the rule of the sinister organization UNITE.

Like Last Night, this is one I may need to give a rewatch down the line and come back to to really fully sum up my thoughts on.  In the meantime, I give it points for actually passing up going the low road of being a Chick Tracts movie like I was braced for.  While I won't say it's changed my view of the world, it was a better 70 minutes than I was braced for.  It does help that, as said above, the film actually does carry itself with a surprising element of earnestness.  The movie was a personal project overseen by Russell S. Doughten Jr., who even appears in an recurring role in the series.  He's a genuine believer and the film honestly gives the impression of meaning well in its message, even if it IS somewhat designed to scare people (and would then go on to be used by Sunday schools to freak out generations to come.)

This film actually seems both better and worse by comparison watched now in light of last year where Harold Camping's prophecies drove some people to flush their livelihoods away because they so believed in his predictions.  It's still a belief I take some issue with, but at the same time, I at least give Doughten some credibility by comparison for the fact he doesn't seem to be trying to drive people to recklessness by telling them it's soon.  In fact, part of the film is that it relies on the idea that they won't know WHEN it comes, and everyone is caught with their proverbial pants down.  He approaches the idea with a bit more of a sense of, odd as it is for me to say, respect, than many others do.

...also, one of these days I'm gonna have to look into the sequels, because they sound downright insane by comparison.  That's a write up for another time now, however.

In a few years time, the already bitter Dunkin Donuts-Starbucks feud will finally start getting bloody.

12/7 Children of Men

With this, we wrap up the first week on one of the best films to make this cut (I won't say the rest of the list now, but I stand by this statement, dammit.)  It's also one of the grimmest, and for a list of films about the apocalypse, THAT says something.

Based on a novel by P.D. James, Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian vision of the future is pretty disturbing on several levels, not the least of which is how likely several of the elements of what it portrays are to happen in reality.  Probably one of the more unsettling elements of this movie still actually goes to how it chooses to bring about the end - falling more on the 'whimper' side of the line than the 'bang', this film's premise of mass infertility gives us a world where humanity is dying by inches.  As such, we're treated to seeing all the darker sides of the race come out in those last gasps - the racism, the brutality, and the 'kill or be killed' levels of distrust that the prospect of seeing the very end of everything lingering will bring out in people.

Which is actually part of what makes it interesting that the big theme at the center of this movie really comes down to hope - both for the species, and for the individuals involved.  This is probably best hit home in Clive Owen's role as the film's lead - going from a man who has lost everything he had to live for and is essentially dead on his feet to someone who actually finds a cause worth fighting for and even risking his own life to see through.  Of course, this is ultimately a rather bittersweet optimism.  While a part of us wants to see the protagonists succeed, because they're people we ultimately care about, the entire situation the movie depicts of the world does leave one to wonder if, at that point, humanity really deserves another chance.

With a great script, some strong performances, and some downright haunting cinematography (this last one by Emmanuel Lubezki,) this film really has held up to be one of the best to come out of the 'noughties' as the decade is apparently now to be called.  Yes, I realize some might take that as hyperbole, but in this case, I'll chance it.  The film really has held up well, and it remains an intense experience to watch unfold.  Not just conceptually either, the film had some very strong technical efforts going into it as well, in particular a 6 minute long take of a military siege in a refugee camp that actually looks astonishing when you realize how seamless the entire shot is (even further when you learn they only needed three takes to get it right.)  It won't be an easy ride, but it will be worth the time taken.

Which brings us to the end of week 1.  The next batch will be up on Friday (read: actually on time) but also keep with us during the week, as I'll be trying to get some other entries up alongside this project while I'm at it.

As of this entry, 9 days to go.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

In what will likely be the last entry for this month...

Well...unless I get a MASSIVE left-field shot before tomorrow night.

So, I know I've been behind on the joys of the random pile.  I mean, last entry was a start, but even I'm starting to miss the little mutants.  Rest assured, however, we're going to be bringing some of them back to light again and getting back into dusting off the lesser knowns again...
...starting in the next entry.

What can I say?  It's been a pretty active season of getting to theaters for me.  This is a rarity, so I'll ask that you bear with me through it, since it really does feel like it'd be a waste not to offer some $0.02 on the offerings.

Which brings us to this week's entry.

I have to admit...I'm not really feeling this Odd Couple remake just now, but let's see how it goes.

Well, so far this season, we've done arthouse, we've done blockbuster, and we've done blood-soaked martial arts revenge.  What else is there to cover?

...well, I suppose we should get something in for the family quotient again.  Lord knows we'll be inundated there soon enough, as is standard procedure for this time of year.  Luckily, this week's entry is actually a pretty good one.

The whole movie's animated like this - I promise.
...OK, so I shot myself in the foot on that one by showing the other screencap, but it was worth it.

When Disney first announced Wreck-It Ralph as an upcoming project, I admit I shared some of the initial internet skepticism.  Well, OK, that's not entirely true.  My first encounter with the movie came care of a teaser poster with no title and simply the 8 bit version of Ralph's head.  So for a while, my view of the film was "So...what the Hell is this for, anyway?"  When the teaser hit the web, however, my view was a bit uncertain.  I liked what I was seeing in the trailer, but there was still that lingering nagging voice that was asking if the gamers were just getting played.  I mean, I've got nothing against a film sneaking in some references, so long as I know they're being done for a reason beyond just "The audiences should love this!"  That was the concern a lot of people had at first in this case - were the guest appearances by the likes of Zangief, M. Bison, Q-Bert (2 out of the 3 in an entertaining 'bad guy support group' that actually holds up as a joke beyond just familiar faces,) and others actually there for anything more than going  "Look at this gamers!  You like this stuff, right?"?

Seriously, for as concerned as people were, this scene IS pretty priceless.

Fortunately, a lot of the positive buzz had heard afterwards had me willing to stifle this suspicion long enough to give the film a watch.  I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised.  I'm not gonna say it's anything major or gamechanging, but it's still a pretty enjoyable film.  The story itself is, admittedly, kind of standard, albeit the setting makes up for that.  It's your classic 'outsider is tired of being seen as the bad guy (in this case, literally, thanks to Ralph essentially being akin to classic Donkey Kong) and tries to change his image, with mixed results.'  In this case, as the advertising shows, the classic storyline is played out within a video arcade - more directly by the games themselves.  This is the area where the script makes up for the somewhat cliched premise - the world of the arcade is actually surprisingly well thought out in terms of the rules of how everything works.  Each world has its own loose rules based on its games, and actions therein are handled as such, while there are also an over-arcing set of rules for game characters in general, relating to many of the interactions that occur over the course of the movie.  It's the kind of thing that takes the familiar story and manages to help provide just enough interesting twists to keep the plot from feeling too by-the-numbers.

The other thing that works in this regard, of course, is the characters.  In this regard, I have to hand it to John C. Reilly as the titular Ralph.  With this, he's confirmed he's on the list of actors who can actually act behind a mic as well as they can in front of a camera (I know, this doesn't sound like much now, but trust me.  There are actors who can, and have, bombed a voice over performance.)  Additionally, in this case, Ralph isn't played up as an entirely comedic role, but actually is genuinely pretty sympathetic in the way he's written and played.  The supporting cast, likewise, all prove capable of holding their own with just their voices as well.  It's hard really picking others among this cast to say really went above and beyond here, because it's not like there's any real weak points to hold against.  Oddly, the one other that really stood out in this case, in part because he wasn't immediately recognizable off the bat was Alan Tudyk as the film's somewhat antagonistic King Candy, channeling a healthy dose of Ed Wynn into the role.  In some ways, this hard time nailing individually strong roles over others is itself pretty encouraging.  It's also on this note that I have to commend the decision of the filmmakers to have the cast all recording their dialogue together rather than in separate booths.  This leads to some genuinely great bits of interaction among the cast, particularly between Reilly and Sarah Silverman sometimes devilish kid racer Vanellope von Schweetz.  For only offering up their voices, the two really do have a great chemistry here, even among the already pretty strong dynamics everyone has performance-wise.

It's a like a more heartwarming, less bloodsport-oriented Master Blaster.  Also, there's a clear answer to who runs their Bartertown.

The animation, as an extension of the world building, does help carry the setting well here.  I'm not gonna say it's anything jaw-dropping or redefining what animation can do, but it still creates an interesting look into the other side of the screens.  In particular, the animators make for a nice touch on looking at the differing sides of the screen at points - especially with older games like the fictional Fix-It Felix Jr (where Ralph and his 'good guy' (Jack MacBrayer) reside) and the real Tapper.  In such cases, there are scenes where the film's more standard animation style is eschewed to depict the events being carried out in the traditional gaming style we'd see as the player.  It's a nice little sight gag, and one they thankfully don't over play their hand on.  That said, most of the other games we tend to see more behind the screens, and even with that challenge, the animators still found a way to keep each world particularly distinct - Fix-It Felix Jr is a very 'clean' look, translating the older animation into easily cleaned settings and people who genuinely 'hop' from place to place rather than full walking; the pseudo-FPS Hero's Duty is very much the classic 'dark and techno heavy' sci-fi shooter, complete with the giant insect foes; and the racing game Sugar Rush, that makes up much of the plot, is a brightly colored candy land that looks akin to Willy Wonka on crank.  Interestingly, we also see these settings built up as something that can, and as the characters are concerned, do live in.  It's a surprising attention to detail - especially given the nature of some of the settings they're playing with.  Again, it won't change the way we see animation per se, but the fact is it still does a great job of fleshing out the gaming world it uses to tell its story.

On his own arguably less disastrous trip to the game, Felix learns from Calhoun (Jane Lynch) why a bringing a hammer to a gunfight is arguably worse than a knife.  At least, in the kid friendly sense.

All things considered, this film did surpass what I was expecting.  It's not gonna change how you live, love, or look at the movies...but then, there's not a lot of movies that can be guaranteed to that, and they're never consistent from person to person.  On its own, however, it takes what could have been a VERY forgettable piece that could have just tried to mine gamers for a few bucks, and actually turned it into a rather fun little story.  It's one we've all heard before, sure, but it's done with enough heart here and enough thought put into the setting to make up for any shortcomings to make for a still worthwhile time.

OK...and THIS time, I promise, we'll be back to the craziness in the days to come.  As well as a new project for the start of the month (no, it's not going to be 25 days of holiday films...my threshold still has its limits.)

So keep an eye out.  Things to be done yet.