Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Halloween Horror: Movie Marathon Report, a look-back review of SPLICE, and more!

Once again, it's almost Halloween, and already it's been an October filled with shocks, scares, tricks, and treats. It's been a busy / stressful week, but somewhere in there I managed to do some really fun stuff. I saw a special, 25th anniversary screening of BACK TO THE FUTURE here in Burbank, complete with remastered picture and sound, and a crowd of hardcore fans that made the experience that much more memorable. I ended up going somewhat last minute, and was a little reluctant due to feeling somewhat under the weather. But man, it was an awesome moviegoing experience - they don't make 'em like that anymore, that's for sure. The next night, I once again participated in something that's sort of become tradition come Halloween time - THE NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS at Disney's El Capitan theater in Hollywood. This year, the film got a "4D" upgrade, meaning that in addition the 3D upgrade from a few years back, we got spooky light-show displays, audience prompts, interactive sections, and elaborate stage sets accompanying the showing of the film. Pretty awesome, and I think there are few better ways to get into the proper Halloween spirit that a showing of TNBC.

Of course, one tradition that has remained strong for the last several years is the annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon. Last weekend, some intrepid film fans once again gathered 'round the Jack O' Lantern to partake in the yearly frightfest, and this year's lineup of horror movies proved particularly - and disturbingly - entertaining.

We opened this year's festivities with an episode of THE RAY BRADBURY THEATER, "The Screaming Woman." In honor of the sci-fi icon's recent 90th birthday, I thought it was only appropriate to kick off this year's Marathon with a vintage episode of his 80's-era TV series. Okay, so the episode itself was only so-so (and hampered by a serious case of only-in-the-80's cheesiness), but hey, you've got to love the series' awesome intro featuring Bradbury himself pontificating on where he gets his ideas for his stories of the fantastic. Plus, the episode (a spin on the classic "Telltale Heart" type of horror story) features a (very) young Drew Barrymore in the lead role - kind of cool.

Anyways, that was the teaser to sort of ease into things (the "opening scaremonies," if you will). Once everyone had arrived and settled, the real fun began. And by that I mean ... we sat down to witness the horror and wonder and mystery that is ... TROLL 2.

Yes my friends, TROLL 2 is truly the "best, worst movie." As the recent documentary about its making posits, Troll 2 is the epitomy of the "so bad it's good" school of filmmaking. Make no mistake though, Troll 2 is very, very bad. It's not a B-movie - that would imply it had some sort of merit as a genre film. No, Troll 2 is so horrendous, so random, so poorly written and acted that it ends up being absolutely hilarious. It doesn't even have trolls! It has goblins! And they live in a backwoods town called Nilbog, which is, if you didn't know, "goblin" spelled backwards. Troll 2 is truly a landmark of anti-goodness. It almost feels like something that was created by an eight year old and then turned into a movie. But knowing that it was made by adults who had every intention of crafting a legitimate horror film ... well, the mind boggles. Suffice it to say, Troll 2 was the perfect way to kick off this year's Marathon. The movie was stopped, rewound, and started again multiple times - it was just that unbelievably insane. I mean, it's actually hard to pick one moment that stands out as the movie's most memorably terrible. It could be the line "they ate him, and now they're gonna eat me too!". It could be the corn-on-the-cob make out scene (yep ...). It could be that the big, goblin-destroying deux ex machina is (wait for it) a double-decker bologna sandwich ('nuff said). All I know is, Troll 2 is definitely up there in the cannon of all-time bad movies. Yikes.

Now, as if we weren't disturbed enough by the inexplicable weirdness of Troll 2, the next film in the lineup, SPLICE, proved itself to be far stranger and more out-there than I could have imagined. Since this is a fairly recent movie from earlier in 2010, one that I missed out on in theaters, I'm going to give it a full review below. Scroll down for my take on what was, indeed, one crazy-ass sci-fi film.

Finally, our third and final movie in the marathon was last year's retro-80's throwback, HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. I caught this one on HDNET Movies last year around this time, and was semi-blown-away by the chops of writer/director Ty West. Not only does this movie look and feel like it's some lost horror-movie treasure from the early 80's, but it's also scary as hell. I've talked before about this movie here on the blog, so I won't go into too much detail. But I love the pacing and storytelling of the filSPLICEm - it's one of those rare movies that builds and builds and then hits you with a horrific punch to the gut during its insane and shocking final act. Good stuff.

SPLICE Review:

- There are some movies that play it safe, and then there are others that go all-out, balls-to-the-wall. If nothing else, you've got to give SPLICE credit for daring to be utterly and completely bat$#%& crazy. Considering that this was a mainstream film given a wide theatrical release earlier this year, I can only imagine that it left a trail of shocked, wide-eyed moviegoers in its wake. And yet, somehow, I still didn't realize the full extent of Splice's insanity months after its release. I hadn't heard about just how nutty it gets. I hadn't heard that it is, most likely, a cult classic in the making. I hadn't heard about the out-there directions that the plot takes, directions that make you smile, squirm, and shudder in revulsion. There might be an argument to be made that this is, in fact, not a good movie. There's also an argument -a valid one, I think - that this is a pretty excellent movie. But one thing's for sure ... Splice is hardcore.

As for me, I really dug this one, even if it requires a pretty substantial suspension of disbelief. It just had that horror-tinged sci-fi feel of a David Cronenberg movie like The Fly. In other words, the movie isn't content to play it safe, and very deliberately sets out to shock you. Does that mean that certain moments might come off, in a certain context, as unintentionally funny / cheesy? Sure, maybe. I can easily image a crowd in a large theater snickering at parts of this film, if only because there are scenes so crazy and awkward that laughter might be the only sensible response. But you know what? Watching Splice with a small group of friends, I was into it. Over the top? Yes. Entertaining / disturbing / appreciably different? Also yes.

SPLICE tells the story of two scientists - Clive and Elsa - a married couple who work at the cutting edge of genetic engineering. Their highest profile project up to this point has been creating a pair of mixed-DNA creatures that are hybrids of multiple animal genes. But, Elsa is restless. Despite the protests of Clive, she presses forward with her desire to take the next step into the realm of (mad) science - she takes the basic premise of she and Clive's earlier work, but adds human DNA to the mix as well. Eventually, Clive serves as a willing if reluctant co-conspirator (the work is conducted in secret, as it'd be highly frowned upon to say the least). But even he is shocked by the creature that he and his wife end up bringing into existence. At first, the being - named Dren - looks like some sort of upright-walking mouse. But as its human genes become more dominant, it morphs into an ethereal patchwork-doll-Frankenstein monster that is highly intelligent and highly emotional - part human, part beast, and continually evolving via a startling series of metamorphoses.

At the heart of the film is the semi-broken relationship between Clive and Elsa, as, really, Dren's introduction into their lives ends up bringing to light all of the long-simmering issues between them. And both lead actors - Adrian Brody and Sarah Polley - are pretty effective here. Brody has been the victim of having been miscast in a lot of his recent films (Predators, anyone?), but his brooding, quirky persona is a good match for the character he plays here - sort of a spiritual successor to Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Polley is similarly good ... she has to maintain a serious tone through a number of pretty crazy developments, and does a nice job of keeping things (relatively) grounded and serious. She definitely gives Elsa a sense of emotional depth - again, even in the face of a pretty out-there script - that lesser actresses probably wouldn't have been able to manage. I should also mention Delphine Chanéac, who plays the fully-grown and most human version of Dren. This is one of those roles that could have been totally absurd in the wrong hands, but Delphine pulls it off. She brings an otherworldly feel to Dren that somehow makes this freak-of-nature creature seem believable and real.

I do think the movie loses a little credibilty in its final act, when it morphs from sci-fi / horror into action / horror. Things become so over the top that, at some point, it's hard to take the movie as seriously as you might have initially. The ending in particular is a shocker - and I think even the biggest defender of Splice is going to have a hard time fully rationalizing the narrative justification for the movie's closing moments. I mean, I liked the movie a lot, but the ending did seem to have the feel of "shocking for the sake of being shocking."

Overall though, I admire this movie. You don't see a lot of genuinely thought-provoking sci-fi movies like this one anymore. And you don't see many movies that are so anti-formulaic. If nothing else, this is one to get you talking, to make you day to your friends "wow, did you *see* that. Suffice it to say, at the annual Halloween Horror Movie Marathon, a couple of the film's craziest scenes were rewound and rewatched, because it took multiple viewings for it to sink in that yes, they really did just go there. Never a bad quality for a sci-fi / horror movie to have.

My Grade: B+

So yes, another successful Marathon, and overall, the extended Halloween celebration this year had been a lot of fun. From Rob Zombie to Knott's Scary Farm, from Halloween Horror Nights to the annual Horror Movie Marathon, I would definitely call this a superlatively spooky Shocktober.

More to come ...

(And no, there's no particular reason for the picture of Elvira accompanying this post, except that, well, who doesn't love the Mistress of the Dark?)

Monday, October 25, 2010

Once Again, the Blog Experiences PARANORMAL ACTIVITY (2) ...


- Back in college, my freshman year, I think, I remember seeing and being sorely disappointed with Blair Witch 2. I mean, the original had been such a defining, influential movie, that to go and turn the sequel into some generic teen horror movie made no sense whatsoever. Last year, Paranormal Activity was in many ways the second coming of The Blair Witch Project. It was an ultra-low-budget horror film that was created as a "found footage" story. Blurring the line between reality and fiction, Paranormal Activity was so scary because it felt like watching someone's home videos. The subtlely spooky effects were just convincing enough so that all of this felt like it could really be happening. The sense of tension and creepiness was off the charts. Sure, the movie had some detractors who found the execution gimmicky, but for me, Paranormal Activity worked amazingly well. Not only was it one of the most genuinely scary movies I'd seen, but it had the Blair Witch-like effect of making me want to go out and make my own found-footage horror movie. There was an economical and entrepenuerial spirit inherent in the movie - you could sense the fun the filmmakers were having at every turn, and their giddy desire to scare you made the movie that much more memorable.

So the big question going into Paranormal Activity 2 was: would this be Blair Witch 2 redux? Would all the magic of the low-budget original be lost now that the franchise was part of the Hollywood sequel factory? I think it was easy to be skeptical ... the original film worked because it was made on a shoestring budget by some very enterprising and creative indie filmmakers. But the good news is that PA 2 works perfectly as a companion piece and pseudo-prequel to Part 1. The look and feel of the movie is the same, and the scares are as terrifying as ever. While there is some sense of deja vu in seeing so many of the original's old tricks trotted out yet again, it's also nice to see the movie sticking to what worked so well before. If you've seen the first film then, yeah, you know what to expect here. But, that's part of the fun - now, the sense of anticipation is there to ramp up the tension even further - you know, of course, that it's only a matter of time before terror ensues.

Paranormal Activity 2 is pretty clever in how it ties back into the first film. The bulk of the sequel takes place a couple of months prior to the events of the Part 1, introducing us to Kristi -the sister of the original's main character, Katie (Katie Featherston - who reappears here in a supporting role), and her family - her husband, his teenage daughter from a previous marriage, and their infant son. The cool thing is that we start to get a little more backstory that gives some added context to the events of the first movie. I like that we understand more about the strange events of the series, but at the same time, appreciate that there is restraint and we're not suddenly hit over the head with an overcomplicated mythology.

Meanwhile, new director Tod Williams mimics a lot of the found footage techniques of the original. Through home security cams and home videos, the movie pieces together a period spanning several days in the life of our characters. Some of the home video footage gets a little too shaky at times, but the security cam footage is probably the movie's most effective at eliciting scares. Williams does a nice job of familiarizing us with the various rooms of the main house, so that when something unusual happens, it's similar to the effect of something strange happening in your own house. The contrast of weirdness happening in such a mundane setting is what helps to make the movie so creepy. Some of the home-video scenes do feel a little contrived though, and invite the question of why the characters are bothering to film at all (aka the Cloverfield effect). But, overall, the found footage conceit comes mostly naturally and without too much suspension of disbelief.

It's also important for the actors in a movie like this to act as naturalistically as possible, so you stop thinking of them as actors and just look at them as real people. Overall, the cast does a really nice job with this - there aren't really a lot of moments where you're taken out of the film.

Now, how about the scares? On this front, PA 2 definitely succeeds. Just like when I saw Part 1, half the fun was looking around the theater and seeing the looks of terror on everyone's faces, seeing people screaming and jumping out of their seats during the big "holy-$%#$," gotcha scenes. As before, PA 2 is impeccable in terms of how it builds and builds towards its big money shots so effectively. Again, there is a lot of similar stuff going on to Part 1, but there is also enough new here to keep you interested. The different character dynamics (whereas Part 1 was just a couple, now you throw a teenage daughter, a baby, and a superstitious housekeeper into the mix) also help to keep things fresh. The baby lends an added creepiness factor to the precedings, and the teen daughter - eager to research all the ensuing weirdness online - helps to serve as the voice of the audience to some extent. Do I want to see an endless parade of sequels after this one? Not really. The film neatly sets up a potential Part 3, which is fine ... but beyond that, I hope there isn't pressure to do an annual Paranormal Activity movie. It's a fun concept to revisit, but given that the signs of repetition are already starting to show themselves here, it'd be a shame to milk the franchise for all its worth in the years ahead.

PA 2 was never going to be able to 100% replicate the out-of-nowhere thrill and originality of the first film, but it's right up there with Part 1 in terms of scares and overall fun-factor. It's the rare horror sequel that doesn't hurt the rep of its predecessor. And, it's the perfect movie to help get you into the Halloween spirit. Just be prepared to sleep with the lights on afterwards.
My Grade: B+

Thursday, October 21, 2010

IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY is Kind Of a Cool Movie, Says I.

There's a lot to like about IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY. It has a great cast, a quirky/funny style, and an upbeat message about getting over angst and depression and living your life. This is one of those rare movies that manages to be both dark and bleak and yet ultimately somewhat heartwarming. It's a trick that films like Little Miss Sunshine pulled off to perfection, but that most movies have a hard time with. It's Kind of a Funny Story doesn't quite reach the heights of the aforementioned film, but it gets the job done. This is one I can definitely recommend.

It's Kind of a Funny Story tells the tale of Craig, a depressed teenager with suicidal thoughts. Craig suffers from an acute case of teen angst. He's from an upper middle class family, lives in New York, has decent parents, some friends, etc. And yet, he's anxious, panicky, and depressed. He has a maddening crush on his friend Nia, who's dating his best friend. He's nervous about whether he'll get into a prestigious summer school program that his parents are pushing on him. Those are really the extent of his big problems, and it's easy on one hand to scoff and say "this kid's got it alright." But, that's kind of the point of the movie. We've all had times where things in our lives that may not be such a big deal take on a disproportionately crushing weight, and all of the day to day stuff gets to feel overwhelming. On some level, all of us can probably relate to Craig. And sometimes, a little perspective is just what the doctor ordered. For Craig, that new perspective comes when he checks himself into a mental hospital. He does so thinking it's akin to going in for a quick doctor's visit, not realizing he's just signed himself up for a minimum five-day stay. Suddenly, Craig is locked away with a bunch of full-blown mental patients, people with serious issues who make his problems look small in comparison.

Now, this premise could very easily have taken a turn for the hackneyed, but a couple of things keep the film from going that route. First and foremost, I have to acknowledge the fine performance from Zach Galifianakis as Bobby, the tragi-comic mental patient who befriends Craig. I was very curious to see Zach take on this role, because it's a very funny character, but also one with some real dramatic moments. And, impressively, Galifianakis nails it. This is really strong stuff from him - maybe one or two memorable moments away from being Oscar-worthy. But the guy clearly has chops, and in many ways he carries the movie. Of course, it helps that the supporting cast is similarly pretty great. I was particularly excited to see Jeremy Davies pop up. Sure, Davies (best known of late as Faraday from LOST) is basically reprising his role from Lost, but he's such a compelling actor that I didn't really mind. The rest of the mental patients are an interesting bunch, with several actors putting in funny and memorable performances.

The two actors who did feel a bit wasted were Lauren Graham and Jim Gaffigan as Craig's parents. I was excited to see both pop up, but they unfortunately get the short shrift in terms of character development and overall screen time. This is actually somewhat of a detriment to the story, too, because Craig's parents come off as blank slates despite the fact that his shaky relationship with them is a major plot point in the film.

As for the other leads, I have to admit that Emma Roberts has a ton of star-potential. She seems natural and at ease in her role here as a troubled teen who forms a bond with Craig. I can see her really breaking out and having the same level of success as her famous aunt. As for Keir Gilchrist as Craig ... he does a nice job. He relies a little too much on forced awkwardness though ... occasionally it gets annoying. He stumbles over his words to the point of absurdity at times, though I guess that might have been an intentional decision on the part of the filmmakers. Still, Gilchrist is good enough that he's believable as a teen who we can empathize with even as we realize that he's got it pretty good, all things considered.

And there, I suppose, is where the movie sometimes stumbles. The script tries a little too hard to go from black comedy to fairytale, and sometimes the transition is jarring. The biggest problem might just be the central relationship between Gilchrist and Roberts - whereas other aspects of the movie feel real enough, their budding teen romance is way too contrived to fully buy into. One byproduct of this is that their fairytale relationship sort of undermines the point of the movie. Of course Craig is going to end up happy and well-adjusted - by the end of the movie he's got two girls fighting over him! I think the movie would have been a bit stronger if it was more about Craig learning to cope with things NOT 100% going his way. Again, the movie, in its third act, just becomes a little too Hollywood for its own good, and it does so at the expense of a script that is otherwise pretty clever in parts. There is some real implied darkness with Craig, with Zach Galifianakis's character, with Emmar Roberts' character ... but the movie is never quite bold enough to really go all the way down the rabbit hole.

That said, It's Kind of a Funny Story has some really triumphant, fun moments. I was prepared to cringe during a scene in which Craig leads the mental patients in a rendition of "Under Pressure," but found myself totally caught up in the ensuing musical montage. In fact, the film uses music really, really well throughout. There's a scene set to an instrumental version of The Pixies' "Where Is My Mind" that is really effective, for example. And a climactic scene involving a dance party set to Egyptian dance music is similarly memorable.

Even if it gets a little contrived and/or cheesy at times, I still came away from It's Kind of a Funny Story really satisfied. It's a little movie with a nice message that's well worth hearing, and it mixes comedy with genuine emotion and darkness more effectively than most movies are able to. It's a breakout performance from Zach Galifianakis, who shows that he can do a lot more than just goofy sidekick roles. Finally, although it sounds cheesy to say it, I did feel like the movie captures a certain sort of Gen Y teen angst that I haven't seen a lot of in films. In our hyperconnected, hypermedicated, oversaturated world, how do you cope with the sheer sensory overload of it all? We all have those "Under Pressure" moments, and I think the movie does a nice job of encapsulating that feeling, while also doing its part to embrace the need to go just a little bit crazy every once in a while. Very much recommended.

My Grade: B+

Monday, October 18, 2010

Seeing RED: Can Willis + Freeman + Malkovich + Mirren = Epic Fail?!?!

RED Review:

- Red is a movie that, at the least, should have been a fun action flick - a slick popcorn movie with lots of humor, excitement, and entertainment value. With so many big-name movie icons on the marquee, it's hard to fathom that Red could be anything less than pretty good. But the fact is, Red is a mess. It's boring, confusing, and hampered by a lifeless script and barely-there plot. The direction is limp and flat. And that all-star cast of A-list actors? When they're not sleepwalking through the film, they're simply rehashing parts they've played many times before and could, well, play in their sleep. I remember that, last year, there was a movie called The Men Who Stare At Goats that was, in a lot of ways, similar to this one. A great cast in a totally uninspired movie that tried for quirk but ended up with crap.

Red is particularly disappointing though, given that the premise does seem to have a lot of potential. The movie is, after all, based on a comic book by award-winning scribe Warren Ellis, known for his gritty, hard-hitting crime and sci-fi stories. I haven't read the comic, but knowing the work of Ellis, I can only imagine that he was cringing just a little while watching the big screen adaptation of his work. I mean, you couldn't ask for a better cast. At the same time though, it's rare to see a movie that is so uniquely emblematic of everything that Hollywood tends to do *wrong.* An overreliance on marquee actors, who are playing themselves moreso than they area ctual characters. Dialogue that tries for cute and quippy but ends up falling completely flat. Plotlines that exist only to drive traffic from one pointless action scene to another. And hey, at least the action must be good, right? Nope, the action in Red is completely generic and forgettable. Other than the brief novelty of seeing Hellen Mirren brandishing a machine gun, there's really nothing to see here.

RED essentially stands for "Retired, Extremely Dangerous." It's the story of a recently-retired spy, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), who is now being hunted down by the CIA - the very organization he used to work for. Seems Willis is on a list of former operatives who possess knowledge that is now considered harmful to certain men in positions of power, and who are now being targeted for assassination. For whatever reason, Willis is the young'un of the group, which also includes the likes of Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich. Hellen Mirren is along for the ride, as is Brian Cox as a Russian heavy who has past history with the group. Mary-Louise Parker is also in the mix as Willis' wide-eyed, in-over-her-head love interest. Karl Urban plays the CIA guy tasked with taking down the old-timers. Ernest Borgnine cameos as the CIA records' keeper, and Richard Dreyfuss puts in an amusing turn as a sleazy adversary.

Again, it's truly an all-star cast, and there are moments where the sheer charisma of the main players helps to elevate things. Malkovich in particular is so over-the-top crazy that he is singlehandedly responsible for most of the film's actual chuckle-worthy bits. But you get the sense that this is more Malkovich going off the rails than anything that was actually built into the movie. But really, just about every actor here is simply playing off their already-well-established on screen persona, in a manner that's just plain lazy. Morgan Freeman's elder statesman gets so little character development that, honestly, a pivotal dramatic moment revolving around him barely even registers. That to me is inexcusable -- if the major dramatic beats of your story make no impact whatsoever on the audience, then your movie has problems. And that's true for all the flimsy arcs in this one. You never care about the half-hearted romance between Willis and Parker. You never buy into any sort of real comraderie between Willis and his band of retirees. You'll never feel anything but detachment towards the plot and its various twists and turns. Mostly, you'll be fighting off boredom and an urge to retroactively rewrite the movie so as to make it something worth watching.

It's amazing to think just how substanceless Red really is. I mean, the movie is supposed to be about all these retired spies who can still kick some ass, right? Well, other than a select few "who you callin' 'Old Man'" quips, the whole central concept is barely even explored. In fact, Bruce and his gang are so unstoppable that you wonder why they ever retired. Plus, this is Bruce Willis we're talking about - is it really reasonable to belive that he's in any way some sort of useless retiree when 90% of his films involve him kicking unholy amounts of ass? But there's very rarely that feeling of "sweet, we're getting the old gang back together" that could have made this film fun. There's nothing that comes close to the "Dillon, you sonofabitch" moment in Predator (to be fair, nothing in any movie really comes close to that, but you get my drift).

But you know, I have a certain respect for movies that can succeed at being a classic, over-the-top, Hollywood action flick. This summer's Salt was a good example - kind of dumb, but a lot of fun - with slick action and twists that kept the momentum going. Red, on the other hand, is one of those movies that just seems to give the absolute minimal effort. There are small attempts at infusing the film with style (the animated postcards that introduce each new locale), but they just seem so arbitrary. You'd be hard pressed to say that the film really has a voice or vision of its own. And again, to have that come out of the work of Warren Ellis, who has one of the most unique and identifiable voices of any writer I know, well, it's sort of sad.

So yeah, RED is certainly one of the more epic fails I've personally seen in a while. People sometimes ask me why my reviews of movies tend to be so positive, and the answer is simple - I usually stay away from movies that look like they'll be complete clunkers. But Red seemed like a can't-miss crowd-pleaser. For it to fall so short of that is pretty disappointing.

My Grade: C-

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Attack of The Killer TV Shows! Taking a Stab at The Fall TV Landscape! FRINGE, TERRIERS, and TV's Other Must-Watch Shows.

Well, October is definitely in full swing, and it's already been a semi-epic month for me so far. I kicked things off last Friday with a big birthday celebration, and it was great having a number of friends come out and celebrate the occasion. This year's festivities took place in "beautiful, downtown Burbank" (as Johnny Carson used to say), and included dinner / drinks at Barney's Beanery, a viewing of The Social Network (fantastic film - see my review from last week!), and finally, end-of-evening revelry at a local establishment's famous 80's Night (complete with live band that looks to have stepped through a time portal from 1987). The next Tuesday, Kirsten S. was in town from Australia (!), so I met up with her in Hollywood for some Mexican grub at El Coyote. Then, this past weekend was jam-packed with pre-Halloween spookiness. On Friday, I took in a showing of kid-vampire flick Let Me In (another great film - see my review from yesterday for more!).

Then, Saturday marked the annual trek to Knott's Scary Farm. Me and the G-Man drove down to Buena Park, where KC and her San Diego crew met up with us for an evening of haunted mazes, scary shows, and more. Knotts is always a great time - love the old-timey amusement park vibe, and all of the creativity that goes into the assortment of mazes. New additions this year included the zombie-ridden Virus Z maze, as well as Fallout, home to all manner of post-nuclear mutants and monsters. Of course, classic mazes like Terror of London, The Slaughterhouse, Club Blood, The Dollhouse, and yes ... Uncle Bobo's Big Top of the Bizarre ... were back. We even made time to check out a crazy circus act that included all manner of mysterious magic and abnormal acrobatics. All in all, it was yet another successful trip to the Scary Farm.

In the meantime, my DVR has been bursting at the seams.

I've been trying to watch a lot of new and returning shows, and man, it's been hard keeping up. The numbers game has been coming into play, meaning that there are going to be certain series that I just can't keep up with, as hey, I am only one man. So ... where do things stand with me and the various TV shows I've been trying to keep up with? Well, rather than doing in-depth reviews, I'll simply rank a bunch of shows by category: Awesome, I'm Still Watching and Liking But Want to See Get Better, On the Bubble, and I'm (Almost) Done.




- Absolutely kicking ass right now - best and most "must-see" drama on TV. At a time when good TV sci-fi seems to be a dying breed, Fringe is telling us a great, ambitious story about other universes and alternate realities that is just great, serialized storytelling at its best. John Noble brings the gravitas every week, and the entire cast has stepped it up. If you're not watching Fringe, you're missing a show that is the true heir apparent to the likes of Lost and 24.


- Right up there as maybe my current favorite show on the air. Great characters, dialogue, humor, and an ultra-compelling ongoing storyline remind me of the late great Veronica Mars. Donal Logue is turning in amazing work here, and the tale of two scruffy PI's just seems to get better and more textured each week. Apparently this show has been low-rated, even for FX. So, watch it! Awesome TV.


- If you like the random, absurdist comedy of The State, this Adult Swim series is for you. An all-star cast of comedy talent serves up awesomeness each week in brilliant 15-minute doses. This is going to be a must-buy on DVD for repeat viewing.


- Picking up right where it left off last year, Community is currently the best sitcom on TV. This show is firing on all cylinders of late, reaching comedic heights achieved by very few shows in history.


- After slumming a bit last season, 30 Rock has come back strong this Fall. A string of hilarious episodes has put 30 Rock back near the top of my must-watch comedy list.


- Although the pacing can occasionally be slow, this ambitious HBO show is still quickly becoming one of TV's most engrossing series. An amazing cast and an abundance of period detail and color make this a great new addition to the HBO cannon.


- Season 2 hasn't been as brilliant as Season 1, but Kenny Powers is still one of the flat-out funniest characters on TV. Despite some unevenness, each S2 episode has had at least a couple of moments that have left me falling over in laughter.


- I had mixed feelings about the first episode of this IFC comedy series starring David Cross. But, Episode 2 nearly blew me away ... it was absolutely hilarious. The show seemed to find it's groove, and quickly began to remind me of the comedic brilliance of the UK version of The Office, full of awkwardly amazing humor.



- I still love Chuck, and this season has definitely been entertaining thus far. But ... when did this show become 90% a relationship drama? Now that Chuck and Sara are together, the soapiness has only been upped, and it's annoying. The show needs to tone down the emo-ness and up the geekiness. More fun spy stories, more Buy More-based humor, more plot development please - and less Chuck agonizing over whether Sara would hypothetically say yes to him if he hypothetically proposed. Ugh.


- Last week's episode of The Office (where Andy starred in a stage production of Sweeney Todd) was a big step up from the previous episodes this season, which have felt pretty flat. I feel like things will pick up soon as the show starts to address the impending departure of Michael Scott, but, until then, I can't help feeling like the show is just treading water.


- Again, I still really enjoy Modern Family, but I miss the wackier, more subversive version of the show from Season 1. Somewhere along the way, Modern Family morphed from The Simpsons to Full House sans-laughtrack. I could really do without the cheesy montages that now end every episode as group hugs and life lessons are dutifully exchanged. Bring back the MF of old!


- Yes, I am still into this show for all of its guilty-pleasure-pleasures. Yes, I am a straight man who enjoys Gossip Girl. But, I am getting a bit sick of the constant romantic roulette between the show's lead characters. I mean, how many times can Dan and Serena break up and get back together? The show seems to be struggling to find truly new storylines rather than rehashing the same old, same old.


- Glee is hard to even categorize, because it really is like a different show from episode to episode. I found it hard to stomach the pointlessly goofy Britney Spears episode from the other week, but one week later, the show was back to being ambitious, darkly humorous, and character-driven. I still believe that Glee is perhaps the most interestingly original show on TV, but I just wish it would be slightly more consistent in tone.


- No way I'm bailing on Smallville after slogging through ten seasons of not-quite-Superman storylines. But, so far, it's been yet another season of endless obstacles between Clark and his superheroic destiny. The frustration with this season is that, after ten years, Clark should be *ready*. And yet, he's still brooding, self-doubting, and worried that he'll be consumed by the darkness within. Good lord, can't we just see Clark as a leader and hero already?
- The Simpsons really does manage to surprise me sometimes. This year's season premiere (in part thanks to the Flight of the Conchords guest spot) was legitimately very funny. This past week's episode was pretty good, and it featured one of the all-time most memorable couch gags in the show's history, thanks to the delightfully subversive underground artist Banksy. The Simpsons can still seem disappointing in comparison to the glory days, but it seems to have - at least for now - settled into a pretty decent little groove.



- I was ready to give up on this one, but the third episode was a big improvement over the previous two. Might RW slowly but surely be embracing its inner Arrested Development?


- I'll say this - this show looks better than just about anything else on TV at the moment, with great f/x and a real feature-film gloss. But it's just too light, bouncy, and insubstantial for me to really sink my teeth into. I like the cast too, but I'm just waiting for something to happen that will give the show some actual forward momentum.
- I think I am just getting sick of the all-Seth McFarlane, all-the-time programming on FOX Sunday nights. It'd be one thing if the shows were consistently great, but Cleveland has been perpetually teetering on the line between decent and mediocre, never really crossing over into that upper echelon of comedic gold. I can only take so much, and I don't know if it's worth it to keep watching.
- Speaking of which, the McFarlane mothership has just been so reliably underwhelming lately that I am seriously wondering if I should keep watching. The fact is, FG was, at one point, the funniest thing on TV. So it honestly pains me to see it fall so far. But when FG is bad, it's really bad, and sometimes it's just hard to sit through when it's falling flat.



- I know there are some fans of this FOX comedy, but I just couldn't sit through it after my initial viewing. I stuck with My Name Is Earl because the cast was just so darn likable. Didn't get that with Raising Hope - just a lot of sort-of-but-not-overly-quirky humor that was pretty blah in my book.


- I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the pilot of Nikita, but I quickly lost interest after a couple of additional episodes. My fandom of the old USA show combined with the comparitively lackluster characters in this version just made me totally ambivalent to the CW-ized take. When you factor in the DVR-busting Monday night timeslot, there was just no way I was going to be able to commit. Sorry, Maggie Q.


- Man, I am still somewhat shocked by the quick cancellation of LONE STAR. The pilot was fantastic, and Episode 2 was similarly great. It pains me to think that we might not even get to see Episodes 3, 4, etc. I guess this is another example of networks failing with shows that come off as "cable-lite." People are now turning to HBO, Showtime, AMC, etc. for complex shows about morally-ambiguous characters, but I don't know if networks have established themselves as a viable home for that type of program. In any case, it's just a shame that Lone Star didn't catch on. I honestly feel it was in the very top tier of this year's crop of new Fall TV shows.


- I cannot wait for the premiere of THE WALKING DEAD on Halloween night.


That's all I've got ... for now. Thoughts?

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Danny Says LET ME IN

LET ME IN Review:

- The Swedish film Let The Right One In was one of those unique films that was practically guaranteed to find a small but devoted cult audience. After having heard a lot of online buzz about it, I went to see the film in one of the few theaters it was playing at here in LA, and I really enjoyed it. Let The Right One In was in many ways the anti-Twilight. Some of the themes were similar, but the interpersonal drama was subtle and understated. The moments of vampiric violence were brutal and shocking. Overall, the movie was atmospheric, methodically-paced, and haunting. Compared to the sound and fury of the typical Hollywood blockbuster, Let The Right One In was a completely different animal. I didn't quite buy into the praise that placed it as the year's best movie or anything, but the movie was so unique that it definitely ranked as one of the most memorable films I'd seen in a long time. It was refreshing to see a horror movie that was so completely different than anything coming out of Hollywood. So of course, it was only a matter of time before the movie was remade -- by Hollywood.

It stands to reason then that there'd be a lot of skepticism around the release of the American remake, LET ME IN. Hollywood has been especially desperate for material of late. Old movies, foreign movies, new movies - *everything* is being remade these days without any good reason other than to release something that has some ounce of presold name recognition. When you take a perfectly good Swedish film and remake it barely two years after the original came out, there is justification to be skeptical.

But here's the good news - LET ME IN is actually a great template for how to do a remake the right way. Have respect for the source material. Get the best cast possible. Preserve the integrity of the original while tweaking things to make things a bit more accessible for the American audience. At the end of the day, did Let The Right One In need to be remade? No. There's no reason that any intelligent person can't go and seek out that film and enjoy it in all of its subtitled glory. In fact, it's fun and interesting to see a movie set in Sweden. It's different. I don't need every film I see to be set in America. I like seeing what other cultures and countries bring to the cinematic table. But, I will also admit that what director Matt Reeves (he of Cloverfield fame) has done here is clever and effective. He's transplanted the story from Sweden to the suburbs of New Mexico circa the early 1980's, quickly establishing a retro-nostalgic, almost Spielbergian vibe. By making his film about lonely kids in suburban America in the 80's, Reeves has made his film instantly accessible and recognizable to people like me. The new combination of story and setting meshes perfectly, chocolate-and-peanut butter style. Nicely done.

To back up and talk for a second about the story - Let Me In shares the same basic setup as Let The Right One In (as well as the original novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist on which it is based). It's the story of a twelve year old boy - Owen - who is an outcast and a loner. He's bullied at school and seemingly friendless (and, in this version, Reeves plays up the fact that Owen's parents are in the process of getting a divorce, another Spielberg-esque touch). One day, Owen meets a new girl that moves into the apartment complex where he and his mom live. The girl - Abby - is similarly quiet and seemingly alone, save for the sullen, brooding man she lives with, presumably her dad (not quite, as it turns out). Owen and Abby strike up a friendship, and before long Owen is completely taken by this mysterious girl who never gets cold and doesn't go to school. Slowly but surely, the truth about Abby comes out - a truth very much connected to a series of ritualistic murders plaguing the town where she and Owen live. A truth involving fangs, aversion to sunlight, and an unquenchable thirst for blood. And so the question becomes - how does the sad, angry Owen react when he finds out that his only friend, an innocent-looking girl, is, as she says "not a girl," but something much stranger and more terrifying.

As in the original, the story makes for a disturbing, thought-provoking, and emotionally-gripping tale of good and evil, of friendship and loyalty. I'll be honest though, when all was said and done, Let Me In, as a whole, worked for me better than the Swedish version. The two films are, in fact, VERY similar. There are a number of scenes here that feel like almost shot-for-shot recreations of the Swedish film. But, Let Me In has a key advantage in the form of the absolutely mesmerizing performances from its two young leads.

Chloe Moretz might just be THE young actress to watch. She completely stole the show earlier this year in Kick-Ass, and she delivers another knockout performance in Let Me In. She is awesome in this film - sad, empathetic, scary. Chloe Moretz as the vampiric girl Abby might just be one of the very best performances I've seen so far this year. Similarly excellent is Kodi Smit-McPhee as Owen. McPhee was excellent last year in the underrated The Road, and is great once again in this one. While the Owen character (then named Oscar) in the Swedish version was so quirky as to be almost unintentionally comical at times, McPhee makes his version vulnerable yet angry, silent yet brimming with emotion. It's a nuanced, textured performance, and you really buy into the friendship / young love between Owen and Abby. I give Matt Reeves and co. a ton of credit for elevating the material by casting two such talented child actors. And of course there's Richard Jenkins, as Abby's grimly subserviant caretaker (listed only as "the Father" in the credits). Jenkins has minimal dialogue, but imbues his character with a wealth of emotion - desperation, sadness, duty. Reeves gives his movie a little extra sizzle by spending some quality time with Jenkins as he performs his nightly blood-runs. There are some dynamite scenes in which the aging caretaker struggles to claim his latest victims. Reeves even juxtaposes some very scary and intense violence with some rocking 80's tunes for added cool-factor.

Overall, I think Reeves takes what works about Let The Right One In and just adds a little extra juice. The music, the 80's ambiance, the camera-work, the little added moments of heightened horror intensity - all that combined with the amazing acting makes LET ME IN an absolutely top-notch production that sucks you in and doesn't let up. At times, I did feel like I was merely rewatching the original (and yes, in some cases - like the famous swimming pool scene - there's just no way that Reeves could hope to top it, so he basically just copies it). But, the darkly affecting themes of the story resonated more strongly, and the intensity was ratcheted up. The retro-80's vibe added that extra layer of cool, and it just felt right for the story and the movie. Again, the good news is that this isn't some slick, brainless Hollywood remake - it's a new version that's as cerebral, atmospheric, and involving as the original. Judged on its own merits, LET ME IN is very much worth checking out - it's up there as one of the best American horror movies of the last few years.

My Grade: A-

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

SUPERMAN Ramblings: 5 Ideas for Zack Snyder's Sure-to-be-Epic Reboot of the Man of Steel!

As a lot of you guys know, I am a diehard Superman fan. I love the character, the mythology, the history, the social and political origins of the world's greatest superhero. And being too young to have seen the original Richard Donner films in a theater, it's always been a dream of mine to see a great, iconic Superman film on the big screen (it's also been a dream of mine to help create a Superman film, but that's a whole other story ...).

When Superman Returns was originally announced, I was ecstatic - especially in the wake of the superb Batman Begins. But very quickly, my excitement turned to caution. The casting seemed off. Rumors about the plotline made me worry that Bryan Singer and co. didn't have a great handle on how to make a definitive Superman movie for a new era. Superman Returns was just a mess, and I don't know if I've ever been more disappointed with a blockbuster film before. If someone had been watching my face as the movie began, they would have seen a pretty extreme transition from giddy happiness as the opening credits played over the remixed John Williams score, to sheer horror as we were introduced to a version of Lex Luthor who was a sleazy, bumbling joke. Within minutes, it was clear that Superman Returns would NOT be the Superman film that we had all been waiting for. There was Lex Luthor as used-car-salesman. Superman as a mopey, effeminate deadbeat dad. Lois Lane was bland. Jimmy Olsen and Perry White were non-factors. The look of the film was gray and boring. The costume was weak and goofy-looking, and the "S-shield" was way too small. The action was mostly nonexistent. Superman didn't throw a punch the entire movie, and he was made to look weak and ineffectual - both physically and emotionally. He was saddled with a super-son that nobody wanted to see. So much was wrong about Superman Returns, and as the months passed following it's release, it became increasingly clear that WB was eventually going to have to go back to the drawing board and re-reboot it's biggest superhero franchise.

Now, after years of speculation, there is movement. DC Entertainment is ramping up at Warners. There is a significant push to get DC Comics characters set up as movies, TV shows, and games. And amidst all that, you have to figure that priority #1 was always to, finally, kickstart a new Superman franchise and to get it right.

First, it was announced that the man behind Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (not to mention a little movie called Inception), Chrisotpher Nolan, would be overseeing production on a new Superman movie. Then, the big news ... Zack Snyder would direct.

Let's repeat that ... Zack Snyder is directing Superman. We knew he was on the short list of candidates, but I honestly wasn't sure if he'd get the nod. I'm glad he did. In fact, I'm pretty freaking excited about this news - Zack Snyder does big, he does epic, he does colorful. He does action as good as or better than anyone working today. He isn't afraid to make his movies crazy, over-the-top, and stylized. He makes movies that get your blood pumping, that kick some ass, that embrace far-out ideas and larger-than-life characters. He is, I think, exactly the man for the job of making the most insane, action-packed, epic Superman movie possible.

Zack will make the most out of whatever he has to work with - I'm confident of that. But now, the main priority has got to be getting a great script. Supposedly David Goyer worked with Christopher and Jonathan Nolan on a draft. It's still too early to know what to think or expect though. I think the script was perhaps the weakest aspect of the recent Batman films - not saying the scripts *were* weak, simply that if there was any one flaw with Batman Begins or The Dark Knight, it was probably to be found in some of the structural issues inherent in each of their screenplays. These superhero movies tend to be overstuffed and filled with plot points and characters that are unnecessary to the story. With Superman, the writing team should find a way to build a strong supporting cast and establish an awesome villain, but first and foremost, they need to make Superman into THE MAN. Between Superman Returns and Smallville, I think we are all sick and tired of an emo, self-doubting Man of Steel. It's time to finally see a Superman who is inspiring, confident, and a natural leader - a symbol of hope.

The next important thing will be the casting. I know everything in Hollywood trends towards young. But I hope that Snyder and co. truly think outside of the box when it comes to casting Clark Kent / Superman. A typical young-Hollywood pretty-boy won't do. We need someone with a commanding presence, who looks like an adult. We also need a Lois Lane who is brimming with wit and personality. She has to be spunky and able to kick some ass when called upon. We have to understand why Superman is in love with her. Lex Luthor should be in the picture, but not the primary villain, at least not yet. He should be a badass. A genius mind who is a titan of science and industry. A man who is, in public, a figure who commands respect, but in private a sinister force for evil. No land-grab schemes. No cartoonish plots. This Luthor is out for power and control and ultimate knowledge. Jimmy Olsen should be in the picture. He should be the unlikely hero - the regular guy who is somehow always surrounded by weirdness and adventure. He always believes in Superman no matter what, and he is, at the end of the day, Superman's pal. Perry White is the gruff boss of the Daily Planet, but also a father figure to Clark. When the chips are down, Perry is an old-school reminder that you stick to your guns and fight the good fight. And you also need Jonathan and Martha Kent. They are the reason that, despite being an alien, Clark Kent is more human and grounded than most ordinary people. They taught him right from wrong, and are still there to remind him of what's right.

Zack Snyder and co. have 75 years' worth of stories to mine. They have the ability to craft an epic adventure - to make a franchise worthy of the Big Red S. They need a dynamite script and an equally stellar cast. Some other suggestions:

1.) Make it BIG: Superman is a character that can work well with smaller, more personal stories - but only because those stories serve as a contrast to the usually-epic scope of his adventures. A new Superman story needs to start out with a BANG. Skip the origin, skip the will-they-or-won't-they Lois and Clark romance. Just get right to the good stuff - huge villains, a big, far-reaching story, and a plot filled with intrigue, spectacle, twists, turns, and lots of action. We've yet to see a Superman movie on a truly super-scale. So yeah, no more cheesy Lex land-grab schemes. I want intergalactic warfare, epic battles, giant villains, and mind-blowing sci-fi concepts that would make Jack Kirby smile. On another note, I don't want this movie to rehash what we've seen before. The idea of Zod as the villain, for example, doesn't 100% intrigue me. Just because he was cool in Superman II doesn't mean we need to see him again.

2.) Make it COLORFUL: Superman returns never *felt* like Superman. Superman has always been the comic book character who has the craziest adventures, the most insane, out-there stories, and the biggest, most over-the-top villains. So Zack - go wild. Dazzle us with awesome visuals and comic book color. Make that super-suit the brightest blue, red, and yellow you can find. Introduce all the insane concepts from the comics that WB will allow - Bizarro, Boom Tubes, fifth-dimensional imps (okay maybe we can skip them ...), DNAliens, signal watches, and alien invaders from the fiery planet Apokolips. Leave the dark and gritty and brooding stuff for Batman. Make a Superman that pops off of the screen.

3.) Make it INSPIRING: In spite of what I just said, I still want a Superman that takes time to save a little kid from a random street thug, or who stops to give advice to a woman who seems depressed, or who answers letters from people who write to him with their problems. I want a Superman who is a hero to the world, who fights the neverending battle. Most of all, I want a moment, or moments, in the movie where I want to stand up and cheer and say "hell yeah, kick his ass Superman!" Superman Returns never gave us that moment, and that's a shame.

4.) Set it in the DC UNIVERSE: As much as Christopher Nolan seems resistant to the idea of an interconnected DC movie universe (in the vein of what Marvel is doing), I think the time has come for DC and Warners to plant the seeds for a bigger vision of the world of DC Comics in the movies. Not only does this open up a floodgate of possibilities for tie-in comics, games, TV shows, and other films, it just makes the next Superman movie that much richer and more epic. Have other heroes appear. Make sure to include DC Comics staples like STAR Labs, Cadmus, and Lexcorp. Maybe throw in Wayne Enterprises and Kord Industries. But give the fanboys something to latch onto, and have some fun with this - show us that this is not just another retread of the old Donner movies, but a brand new vision of the DC Universe on the big screen.

5.) Make sure it KICKS ASS: This is where Snyder is going to bring something to the table that other directors might not have been able to pull off. I mean, this is a SUPERMAN movie - give us at least one fight scene that makes us sit up and say "HOLY CRAP I've never seen THAT before." Show us a Superman who's battered, bruised, half-dead, but who keeps on fighting. Show us Lois in mortal danger, show us Jimmy coming to the rescue, show us Lex making a last-minute swerve to the dark side that leaves our jaws on the floor. But for the love of all that is holy, give us some kick-ass action.

And now, we wait. We'll see if this new Superman can finally deliver. I hope it does.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Tapping Into THE SOCIAL NETWORK - Movie of the Year So Far ...?


- I was a student at Boston University's College of Communication from 2000 to 2004, and in many ways, it was an exciting time to be in college and to be studying communication. From a technological point of view, the times were definitely a-changin'. Cell phones were becoming ubiquitious. High speed internet was becoming more widely available, and at BU, circa 2000, the vast population of students was already very much connected to each other via intra-university networks, and the beginnings of the modern social media web were already beginning to evolve. We'd log on to those networks and download movies and music. People were sharing, creating, linking. My freshman year, Napster blew up, and suddenly there was this whole new world of online music. The floodgates had opened. People were blogging and instant-messaging. At a campus as huge as BU's, IM was the preferred way to keep in touch, and it was already replacing phone calls as a primary means of chatting. Your online alias was quickly becoming an important part of your identity. For a freshman communications class, I wrote a paper on the use of AIM among teens and college students and how it was changing the way young adults interacted. By my junior year, digital cameras were exploding in popularity, and people were starting to post more and more of their photos, and eventually videos, online. By the time I studied in London in 2003, it felt natural and easy to search for episodes of my favorite TV show, 24, via various online networks. I started a blog for a computer science class I was taking my senior year (which eventually morphed into this very blog), but prior to that I was semi-addicted to reading a couple of LiveJournal blogs written by friends or friends of friends, and I had my regular list of websites that I checked every day - many of which were becoming increasingly dependent on user-generated or user-submitted content. By my junior year, I think, there was something in the air in Boston. Everyone was trying to figure out how to create the Next Big Thing. All of us in COM were wondering what the digital future meant for us. My friends in the School of Management were all trying to dream up the next huge website, the next big idea. There was a lot of energy in Boston dorm rooms at this time, a lot of big dreams. But there was also a dark side to the infiltration of social connectivity and easily-shareable media. Students began getting taken to court by the record labels. At BU, a girl was filmed doing some pretty disgusting and embarassing stuff at a party, and the video was infamously passed around within the BU network, and on the internet at large, for anyone to see. A reminder that privacy was becoming less of a guarantee, that there were a lot of dark corners in the social network. It was clear, though, that this was indeed a new digital era, with all sorts of potential for both good and bad.

And then came Facebook. I know there are still some people who dismiss the site as a fad or a gimmick, but those people are not seeing clearly. Facebook has "won," and it's here to stay. There were other sites that predated it, and others that have challenge it, but right now, in 2010, Facebook is the site that is at the forefront of the revolution in social media. It's at the forefront of the web in general. At BU, the site spread like wildfire in 2004 - my senior year. Within months, seemingly everyone on BU had a profile on the site ... at a huge college like Boston U, the chance to connect so easily and with so many people - from good friends to random classmates - was hard to pass up. While it took the mainstream a while to catch on, Facebook was already well on it's way to world domination even then. Facebook was all the rage in Boston in 2004, but soon enough, it expanded to the rest of the country. Soon after that, it expanded to other countries - I now have Facebook friends in England, Israel, Australia, and elsewhere. Before long, my co-workers, young and old, were on the site. Later, my parents. Political campaigns, marketing campaigns, campaigns to get Betty White to host Saturday Night Live - all conducted on Facebook. Messaging, photo-sharing, games of Scrabble - all on Facebook. You meet someone at a party, and you ask them to "Facebook-friend" you. Honestly, when I meet someone in my age range today who's NOT on Facebook, it's like meeting one of those people who used to refuse to buy a TV or something. I know there are those who like to boast that they're not on Facebook, and I get it. In some ways, the site has become an all-encompassing monster. It's addictive. It raises privacy concerns. It makes it so our lives are digitally catalogued and recorded - our likes and dislikes, our nights out, our relationships. It's fun and useful but also anxiety-inducing. And hey, I'll admit it, my life was and is changed by Facebook, as I suspect many of yours were and are. And it's for that reason that there is that fascination to understand it, to get the story behind it, to try to make sense of how we got to this point so fast and so suddenly.

But, regardless of what you think of (or how much you use) Facebook, there's no doubt that the story behind its inception is a fascinating one. So please, don't judge THE SOCIAL NETWORK based on your opinion of the site. The movie isn't a referendum on Facebook, nor is it about the specific ins and outs of using Facebook. Yes, the movie was extra compelling to me - I was there from the beginning, I was in Boston as Mark Zuckerberg was creating Facebook, and I've been on the site longer than most. I was hanging out around Harvard, exploring Cambridge, hoping fruitlessly for a chance Natalie Portman encounter. Getting pizza and hitting up Newbury Comics at The Garage in Harvard Square. I was there, and I went on to work in digital media and at a job where Facebook is very much a part of what I do. In some small way, I feel connected to the events of this movie.

But all that being said, it doesn't matter. Apart from all of that larger context, the fact is that THE SOCIAL NETWORK is an absolutely phenomenal, mind-blowing film. It captures a time, captures a place. It is riveting. The script is crackling. The acting is exceptional. The direction is the great David Fincher 100% at the top of his game. It delivers a knock-out punch. It might just be the best movie of the year so far.

I mean, think about this for a second. The hype over this being "The Facebook Movie" is so huge, that people are actually overlooking the fact that this is the new film from DAVID FINCHER, and that it's written by AARON SORKIN. That's a dream team, a once-in-a-lifetime combo of visionary writer and director. Now, these are two of the greatest creative minds of the last couple of decades, but ... both have had high profile misfires of late. For Fincher, Benjamin Button was a visually outstanding but narratively lacking film - not in the same league as the director's greatest films, like Fight Club. For Sorkin, the television show Studio 60 was a high profile flop. After a great pilot, the show became so preachy and heavy-handed that I began to question my high regard for Sorkin in general. But here's the great news about The Social Network - it might just be the best thing that Fincher has ever directed, and it might just be the best script that Sorkin has written to date.

Fincher directs the story of Mark Zuckerberg's invention of Facebook with a driving energy that makes it as intense and riveting a film as anything else he's helmed. There's a dark, almost apocalyptic vibe to the movie. Seeing such recent history play out on screen, knowing how much things are about to explode, knowing that the small actions and reactions of the characters will very quickly change the world - it gives The Social Network an ominous and pulse-pounding mood that makes it hard to take your eyes off of the screen. This is NOT a bland, slice-of-life tale of college life or corporate maneuvering. This is huge, epic, operatic, end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it stuff. This is a movie that's about so much more than just the basics of the story it tells. It's bursting with subtext, with theme, with character, with depth. Fincher's camera captures that certain something, that pulsating, driving force that propels you through college, that energy and freedom and sense of possibility that makes each class, each idea, each night out, each conflict feel bigger and grander than it might have in another setting. That energy that I spoke of earlier - that feeling that was in the air in Boston circa 2003? Fincher nails it. It's something that's slightly intangible, hard to describe, but he nails it. I think about a rowing scene towards the middle of the film. It involves the Winklevoss twins - two purebred Harvard students who approached Mark Zuckerberg with an idea for a social networking site, and then felt betrayed when he ditched the project and struck off on his own, going on to create the site that would be Facebook. The Winklevoss twins are business students as well as star athletes, and their ultra-competitiveness as Olympian-level rowers - and it's transference to their rivalry with Zuckerberg - is a recurring theme throughout the movie. And in this scene, as we see them intensely rowing in a big competition, I don't know why, exactly, but it absolutely gave me chills. Fincher directs it with that driving intensity I've been talking about. It's just two guys rowing, but it feels like so much more is at stake. In that one scene, it's the old vs. new, the establishment vs. the geeks, the old world vs. the oncoming revolution. Again, Fincher never makes The Social Network feel like a "small" movie. The stakes are always epic. The themes are grand. The moody score by Trent Reznor adds immeasurably to that feeling as well. But man, this is Fincher at his absolute best.

Meanwhile, the script by Aaron Sorkin is equally impressive. For one, the dialogue is absolutely top-notch. Some of the best I've ever heard on-screen. I was worried that Sorkin would infuse the film with some sort of overt political message - the same sort of heavyhandedness that has been his achilles heel in the past. But that is not the case. Sorkin is laser-focused on character and theme, and it shows. Every character pops off the screen - from the awkward boy genius Zuckerberg, to the snobby Winklevoss twins, to the charismatic Napster founder Sean Parker, to Zuckerberg's friend and rival Eduardo Saverin. We don't know everything about these characters, and the script wisely leaves a lot open to our own interpretation. Nothing is black and white - no true heroes or villains. And yet, the characters are so brilliantly drawn so as to invite endless discussion and debate and analysis. Was Zuckerberg really a bad guy? Was Saverin screwed or was there more to his situation than meets the eye? Did the brothers Winklevoss have just cause to take Zuckerberg to court? Given the recent and reality-based nature of the events of the film, it's probably wise to leave these conclusions to the viewer. But it's not just good business - Sorkin's script is so well put together that you can only admire him for not cutting corners, for not hitting us over the head with his own opinions or biases, for creating these fully realized characters that are, like most people, capable of both good and bad. And I also have to take a moment to praise the structure of the script - it is near-perfect. So many movies have a great setup but no payoff. So many films feel rushed or too long or seem to skip over important details. The Social Network is perfectly paced. It starts off with one of the movie's best scenes - a brilliantly-written and acted bit in which we see Zuckerberg at a bar, on a date, with a girl who is quickly losing patience with him and his hyperlogical sparring. The scene will inform and drive the rest of the film, and the way in which it all comes full circle by movie's end is nothing short of genius. It's all the result of what is surely lot of creative license on the part of Sorkin, but it doesn't matter - it makes for an incredible narrative that plays out, with a gut-punch of an ending that is haunting, ironic, and darkly funny. Throughout the film, there are moments that are quietly hilarious, moments that are wrenching, and moments that are exhilerating. All the credit in the world goes to Sorkin for crafting a screenplay that works as well on the micro level (dialogue, character, humor) as it does on the macro level (overarching themes, sense of scale). A year ago the very idea might have sounded laughable, but Sorkin and Fincher have done the seemingly impossible - they've made the story of Facebook - no kidding - into one of the great epic dramas of our time.

Of course, I've also got to talk about the cast. Each and every cast member brings it, delivering the best work of their careers so far. Jesse Eisenberg is ridiculously great as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. His speech, his mannerisms - they're at once unique and stylized and yet 100% believable and real. His version of Zuckerberg is eccentric and awkward, sure. But he also feels like someone you might know. He doesn't feel like a cartoon character or a mere impression. He feels like a damn good character brought to life. This is an award-worthy performance from Jesse Eisenberg. And Andrew Garfield is just as good if not even better. His character, Eduardo Saverin, is more emotional than Zuckerberg, and so Garfield gets a lot of the movie's big, dramatic, emotional scenes. And yep, he nails 'em. Garfield again shows that he is one of the best young actors out there. This is also, easily, Justin Timberlake's best movie role ever. Timberlake's Sean Parker is a rockstar of the digital world - a smiling charmer with more than a hint of sinister temptation in his eyes. He brings the star-struck Zuckerberg into his pseudo-glamorous life and leaves an unmistakable stamp on the evolution of Facebook. Armie Hammer is also superb, playing both Winklevoss twins thanks to some impressive and seamless digital f/x. Serving as great foils for Zuckerberg, the Winklevoss brothers help establish the unique world of Harvard and the elitist Ivy League establishment that still dominates the culture of the school. Rooney Mara also has a small but crucial role as Erica Albright - that girl in the first scene who breaks up with Zuckerberg in a Cambridge bar. A made-up character, but an important one, Erica's presence haunts the entirety of the film, and Mara makes her a worthy one-that-got-away - a BU girl (go BU!) who makes for a formidable sparring partner with the sharp-as-a-tack founder of Facebook.

From the opening scene of The Social Network, I knew I was watching something special. The movie grabs you from the get-go and never lets up. By the time the credits began to roll, I was shellshocked. Stunned. The ending was every bit as powerful as the opening, and the story in between was consistently captivating. I saw this movie as part of my birthday celebration, and going in I worried that I might be too distracted by all the party-planning to fully focus in on the film at hand. But that wasn't the case. I was 100% immersed in the film for its duration, and when it was over I eagerly discussed it with my friends, all of us in agreement that we had just seen a landmark movie. This is a fantastic film in and of itself. But when looked at in the context of recent history, in terms of how it sheds light on the world in which we live in today - a place where we're simultaneously connected to everyone and no one - it becomes, I think, a singular achievement. This is a film that lives up to the hype. A film that feels important and yet never fails to entertain. It's David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin and a cast of some of Hollywood's best young actors each bringing their absolute A-games. The Social Network is a must-see, and the first truly great movie of the Fall.

My Grade: A

Friday, October 01, 2010

Let Rocktober Commence: ALICE COOPER and ROB ZOMBIE Bring The Poison and Bring The Pain!

- I can't believe it's already October. Partly, that's because it's been close to if not higher than 100 degrees here in LA for the last week. Partly, it's because it feels like only yesterday that we were poised for the start of Summer. And, maybe, part of it is that I'm trying to come to terms with the fact that this past Tuesday I turned (gasp!) 28 (on Sept. 28th!). And yet, I can't complain - because every year since moving to LA, this has always been right up there as the most fun month of the year. Halloween is huge in Hollywood, and hey, when in Rome ... Now, sure, I've partaken in my fair share of Halloween fun over the last few years, but one thing I always wanted to do ... see ALICE COOPER in concert, the closer in proximity to Halloween, the better. So, when I had the chance to see a double-bill of Alice Cooper and ROB ZOMBIE, live and in person - a super-show dubbed Halloween Hootenanny, featuring "The Gruesome Twosome," well, suffice it to say I was psyched.

I think I've been semi-fascinated with Alice Cooper since I was a kid. And ever since I saw Wayne's World and saw Wayne and Garth partying and rocking out at a kickass-looking Cooper show, I've wanted to see the mad man of rock n' roll live. I remember watching the Behind the Music special on Cooper back in the day and again, just being fascinated at the juxtaposition of this guy who, on one hand, was by all accounts a nice, genuine, humble good samaritan, and on the other was one of rock's great goth icons - a crazyman who seemed to walk on the edge of dark psychosis. But hey, he is a bonafide legend, no doubt about it. He influenced all sorts of artists, has a catalog packed with awesome tunes, and hey, he's about to become a certified (and much-deserved) Rock n' Roll Hall of Famer.

So yeah, seeing Alice Cooper play live, at Universal Studios, on the eve of October 1st, was just something that to me was inherently awesome. And man, the guy can still perform. A master of his craft, Alice Cooper burned through dozens of hit songs, barely pausing to take a breath in between tunes. But Alice doesn't just sing. Every song is a live stage show - darkly funny performance art in which the psychotic Alice Cooper character is killed repeatedly in all manner of amusingly gruesome ways - he's beaheaded by a guillotine, hung by a noose, and injected with a glowing syringe filled with toxic poison. He's tied up in a straightjacket, seduced by a femme fatale, and carried off by demonic monsters and sacrificed to their hellish gods. Sounds grisly, but it's all in good fun. All of Cooper's bits have an over-the-top sense of humor about them. He's a natural performer, too - donning a sparkling tophat and waistcoat for "Elected' and fencing on stage with a rapier during "Billion Dollar Babies."

Cooper blazed through 22 songs, kicking things off with iconic rockers like "School's Out," "No More Mr. Nice Guy," and "I'm Eighteen." I was hoping for a little bit more love for Cooper's more over-the-top 80's and 90's-era songs (I love stuff like Man Behind the Mask and House of Fire), but at least we did eventually get one of my all-time favorites, "Poison," which kicked ass and then some. Other highlights included "Be My Lover," as well as the aforementioned "Billion Dollar Babies" and "Elected."

But yeah, it was sort of surreal and unquestionably awesome to be welcomed into Mr. Alice Cooper's nightmare. To see the icon onstage, the classic black makeup streaks intact, the trademark bullwhip in hand - it was definitely an experience. May he keep on rocking for many years to come.

"Told her that I came

From Detroit City

And I played guitar

In a long-haired rock and roll band ...

She asked me why

The singer's name was Alice

I said listen, baby

You really wouldn't understand!"

Meanwhile, the show was opened by a band called the Murderdolls, a bunch of rockers in Kiss-style facepaint who were probably closer to Rob Zombie in terms of edge and bite. They had a couple of pretty decent tunes that, at the least, got the crowd primed and ready for Cooper and Zombie.
Speaking of the crowd, they were an eclectic bunch to say the least. You had your old-school classic rock dudes who saw Alice Cooper back in '78 and swore he hadn't lost a step. You had your goth kids in white makeup and fishnet arm-stockings. You had families, old guys, young guys, goth girls, rocker girls, and everything in between.

Eventually, after Alice Cooper finished up his set and got a well-deserved ovation, it was time for ROB ZOMBIE. I'm a longtime fan, although definitely only a casual one. I like Zombie's hits, and songs like "Dragula" and "Feel So Numb" are great pump-up songs to blast at full volume on the ride home from work. But I definitely do not consider myself in the cult of Zombie or anything like that. I've never even seen any of the guy's movies - I'm sort of intrigued by them, but I rarely go in for horror movies who's biggest selling point is extreme gore and brutality.

But I'll say this - I came away from Halloween Hootenanny a bigger Zombie fan than before. The guy put on a truly awesome show, and had some of the best sets, props, and theatrics I've seen in a concert. As Zombie blasted through sci-fi inspired songs like "Jesus Frankenstein" and "Mars Need Women," the stage was assaulted by giant monsters, aliens, and robots. There were huge pyrotechnics, clips of old horror and sci-fi movies playing on the big video screen, and crazy lighting and secondary video displays. Plus, a lot of the songs that I may not be playing on repeat in my car nevertheless made for great arena-rockers, with easy-to-chant choruses that had the crowd on their feet, banging their heads, and pumping their fists.

I didn't know a lot of the Zombie songs beforehand, but we got some of the big hits that any rock n' roll fan is familiar with. "More Human Than Human" and "Living Dead Girl" were two of the big crowd-pleasers, and Rob closed out the show with an absolutely thrashing rendition of Dragula that had the fans at Universal going wild. We even got the hilarious "Werewolf Women of the SS" trailer from GRINDHOUSE, followed by the song of the same name. In between songs, Zombie had some pretty amusing banter, waxing philosophical about the appeal of the Jonas Brothers, and giving some huge props to Alice Cooper. Rob and his band even played a quick cover of "School's Out" in tribute to the icon who preceeded them onstage. I was really surprised by how great of a showman Zombie is though - he was dancing and leaping around the stage like a man possessed, and just brought huge overall energy to what was on the whole a crazy show. By the time the epic Dragula concluded, we had all been thoroughly rocked.

Overall, it was a blast to see these two horror-rock icons together and each on top of their game. I can't think of a better way to kick off October.

Epic Owl Adventure - LEGEND OF THE GUARDIANS - Reviewed!


- Legend of the Guardians is, first and foremost, an amazing movie to look at. Featuring incredibly-rendered animal characters, and directed with stylized flair by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), this is easily one of the most visually-captivating movies I've ever seen. But, the film is such a visual showcase that the narrative, while sweeping and epic, sometimes seems to take a backseat. It's Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, and The Chronicles of Narnia mashed together - with owls - and the result is a story that touches a lot of familiar high-fantasy tropes, but also feels a bit rushed and a bit *too* familiar. Still, the sheer visual punch of the film, combined with some genuinely cool character and story beats, are enough to make this one deserving of a hearty recommendation. On the big screen, the movie makes an impact, and is, oftentimes, simply breathtaking to behold.

The story of the movie is complex and busy, but it's also a mashup of a lot of very familiar character archetypes and mythic conventions. Basically, in the movie's mythical, magical world of talking animals, there is an amassing army of an evil owl empire who seem like a cross between the Nazi's, the Empire from Star Wars, and Sauron's forces from LOTR. The army, known as the Pure Ones, are led by a scary warmonger who wears an iron mask to hide his deformed face (like an owl Dr. Doom). Rumors of their rise are spreading throughout the owl kingdom, and the rank-and-file owls have no one to turn to except for old legends about a bunch of really awesome owl heroes known as The Guardians (basically the Owl version of Jedi, except they don't seem to have any particular powers except for being really badass). Our main character, Soren, is kidnapped and taken prisoner by the Pure Ones, along with his hothead brother and younger sister. While his brother is slowly being turned to the dark side by the frosty queen of the Pure Ones (shades of Narnia), Soren escapes and goes on a quest to find the Guardians, so that they can help put a stop to the Pure One's sinister plans to conquer and enslave all of the other owls.Along the way there's goofy sidekicks, the old warrior who has to don his armor for one last battle, and even some owl-on-owl romance. Again, a lot of it is pretty familiar to anyone who's seen Star Wars or LOTR or what have you, but when matched with the incredible visuals, the story is made to feel relatively fresh given how unique the accompanying visual element is. It's the kind of thing where, if you happen to be a ten year old boy with as-of-yet limited exposure to fantasy fiction, you just might walk away from this one thinking you've just seen the greatest movie ever made.

The voice cast is also pretty good, with a couple of key contributions from noted British thespians. Helen Mirren, for one, is great as the Pure One's evil queen Nyra. In a performance that brought to mind that of Tilda Swindon in The Chronicles of Narnia, Mirren makes for a great villain. On the other end of the spectrum, Geoffrey Rush is likely the movie's biggest scene-stealer as a legendary Guardian warrior who mentors Soren and gets to kick some serious ass despite being over the hill. Is the character sort of cliched? Maybe. But hearing Rush bellow his lines with ridiculous amounts of gravitas made for some pretty badass moments of undeniable awesomeness.

One sort-of-frustrating thing about the movie, though? The ultra-detailed CG makes it pretty hard at times to actually distinguish between the characters. The animators clearly put in some key "tells" to better recognize which character is which, but still, it can get a litle confusing.

Speaking of those visuals ... again, they are incredible. The sheer detail in the characters is astonishing, and every feather, every texture, every gesture, is rendered with eye-popping artistry. Some of the backgrounds are similarly amazing. When we travel to some of the animal cities in the movie's world - vast structures filled with grand architecture and teeming with soaring owls and other creatures - well, it's easy to just get lost in this universe. It's one case where IMAX and 3D only help to add to the full-immersion factor.

What takes the visuals to an even higher level is the direction of Snyder. Say what you want about the guy, but he has an eye for creating crazy scenes of sensory overload like few others working today. And man, this may have been marketed as more of a kids' movies, but Snyder loads up Legend of the Guardians with some truly epic and surprisingly brutal action scenes. There are lots of intense scenes of claw and talon-induced violence, and all of the action is choreographed with a true flair for the dramatic. There's a lot of Snyder's trademark stylization (his trademark slow-down / speed-up camera move, for example), and it's interesting to see a director with such a signature visual style bring that same technique to the world of animation. I don't know if I've ever seen an animated film that fits so neatly into the cannon of its director's live-action catalog.

I really did enjoy the film, but despite all of the visual splendor and cool action, the plot was just too messy and rushed for this one to be something truly special as a whole. In some ways, it felt like three movie's worth of plot was crammed into this film's 90 minutes. You never truly feel like you're watching an epic quest unfold, because everything happens so fast, and all of the big story beats come fast and furious with minimal build-up. It really ends up undermining the stakes of the film, making the bad guys seem weak and the Guardians not-so-legendary. You miss out on all the slowly-building gathering-of-the-troops scenes from LOTR, or the long-simmering character arcs of Star Wars. Everything in the movie happens super quick, so you don't get as invested in the characters or the plot as much as you should in a movie like this. Plus, events unfold so rapidly that it creates the feeling that the characters are just sort of moving from Point A to Point B.

I'd definitely recommend checking this one out though, even if only to see a new bar set in CG animation. The story is familiar but fun, and the action is badass. Legend of the Guardians is further confirmation that Zack Snyder is one of the most dynamic directors working today.

My Grade: B+