Monday, July 30, 2007

Monster Squad, The [Two-Disc 20th Anniversary Edition]

From the tender young age of nine up until fifteen I went through a lot of changes; everything from the sound of my voice to my tastes in music fluctuated wildly throughout those six formative years. In spite of all the changes I experienced one thing remained the same, which was the giant "Monster Squad" poster that was posted in a place of honor on the wall facing my bed. I spent a ridiculous amount of my youth simply starring at that amazing piece of art. When I finally took it down, those many years ago it was in fear that the girls that were finally coming over to my house might not think the Wolfman or Frankenstein was as cool as I did. I sure wish I still had that poster now, because if there's one thing I've learned in the twenty years since Fred Dekker's amazing film first ran in theaters, no girl's as cool as "The Monster Squad!"

Perhaps my love for "The Monster Squad" stems from the fact that I was at the perfect age to enjoy this movie when it first flopped in theaters. I can still vividly recall going to class a few weeks following its summer release. I had just begun attending a new school, and while introducing myself to the class I told them my favorite movie was "The Monster Squad." Much to my surprise nobody in my fourth grade class had ever heard of it. I went on to inform the entire classroom that the film had inspired me to start a monster squad of my own and anyone willing to apply could meet me behind the portable classroom by the blacktop where the kids that had speech impediments went when they were mysteriously pulled out of class three times a week. To my shock no applicants showed up, just a handful of classmates that threw dirt clods at me and cemented my place as "the weird kid" in class. But that was what made the members of "The Monster Squad" so identifiably great, they too were misfits and outcasts and they went on to save the whole world from Dracula. And with that thought in mind I realized that no matter what, I'd be alright, but if any big baddies did arrive in my suburb, those jerks that hefted the balled up bits of earth at me where on their own.

When "The Monster Squad" initially showed up into theaters at the tail end of the summer of 1987, hardly anyone took notice. In those days kid oriented horror was few and far between. R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps", "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Harry Potter" were still decades away and just two years prior the Senate was having hearings looking into the possible satanic influences in everything from heavy metal lyrics to Saturday morning cartoons. Proving the fact that all great movies will find their audiences, through the end of the eighties and on into the early nineties, "The Monster Squad" built a strong and devoted audience in the children and parents that were lucky enough to rent the video or view the countless showings on HBO.

"The Monster Squad" tells the tale of club made up of six adolescents (yes, I'm counting Phoebe the feeb as a member, "or else it's prescription!" ) that form a club based on their love of all things monster related. They draw pictures of monsters, read books about monsters, watch monster movies and after Drac and his crew come to town, fight monsters! Shortly after Sean (Andre Gower), Patrick (Robby Kiger), Fat Kid…I mean Horace (Brent Chalem), Rudy (Ryan Lambert), Eugene (Michael Faustino) and the forcibly included Phoebe (Ashley Bank) form their horror themed organization the biggest baddie of the horror world shows up in their sleepy town. Not only has Dracula himself arrived in their hometown he didn't come alone. He's brought with him some muscle in the form of Frankenstein's Monster, an underwater tech guy with The Gilman (named such since Creature from the Black Lagoon's copyrighted), some more muscle when the moon's full in The Wolfman and finally a steady supply of gauze from The Mummy. Why have all these ghouls shown up in the same place at the same time? Because the town houses an amulet that will help them rule the world of course! Conveniently enough for the squad it's also the town where Van Helsing's diary containing the way to defeat them can be found by somebody's mom at a garage sale. Armed with the unreadable diary but unable to prove the monsters' existence to anyone in their family the kids enable the help of their neighborhood's Boo Radley. By using his native tongue the man the children dubbed "Scary German Guy" assists them in deciphering the diary and helps in the attempt to stop the monsters and their nefarious plan.

"The Monster Squad" came out a mere two years after the Spielberg produced "Goonies" cleaned up at the box office. While comparisons between the two are hard to deny, "Squad" creator's Fred Dekker's film is simply better than the overdone flick helmed by Richard Donner, Chris Columbus and that guy that hasn't made an entertaining film that didn't include a whip or a killer shark. While "Goonies" drowns in the lake of schmaltz that all things Spielbergian crawls from, "The Monster Squad" is charmingly honest in its portrayal of childish awe and never talks down to its audience. Even the revelation of "Scary German Guy's" past as a holocaust survivor is treated with a careful hand that has never been seen attached to either of the wrists of Spielberg himself. This is not surprising due to the ham-fists that generally reside there.

As great as all the child actors amazingly are, what truly sets the film apart from other kid friendly horror films is the excellent cast acquired to play these famous monsters. While all of the creatures are based on the ones seen in the old black and white Universal horror films, the film had to take some liberties by altering their looks to avoid a letter from Universal's legal team. The end result was the iconic look that these monsters will be remembered for by anyone born after 1970. As Dracula, Duncan Regehr brings a fearfully elegant version of the king of vampires to the screen not seen since Christopher Lee last donned a cloak for Hammer studios. For some, choosing to play Frankenstein's Monster in a kid friendly film might seem as an odd choice to follow up his career defining role as the serial killer "The Tooth Fairy" in 1986's "Manhunter." None the less, Tom Noonan gives a shockingly honest version of the cobbled together creature that comes to find that he has much more in common with the children that he was sent to destroy than the monster that ordered him to do it. While the final three villains were all played by actors in costume that did great jobs, their parts were mostly memorable due to the remarkable work done by the great Stan Winston and his studio. While all three looked amazing it was the stand out job done on "The Gillman" that looked better than anything on the screen back in 1987 and still looks far more "alive" than anything done with computer today. "The Monster Squad" is the film that started my life long love of monster movies and all things horror. Girls will come, girls will go, but great horror movies last a lifetime, especially once they're finally released onto DVD!
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Shia LaBeouf has been on a roll recently. Starting with "Disturbia," the young actor has been cast in a few choice high profile roles. He voiced the main character in the animated hit "Surf´s Up." LaBeouf played the lead human role in the blockbuster toy line adaptation "Transformers" and its sequels and will soon be seen in the highly anticipated "Indiana Jones 4." LaBeouf is no stranger to big budget cinema. He had previously had roles in "Charlie´s Angels: Full Throttle," "Constantine" and "I, Robot." LaBeouf is a talented young actor with a long future ahead of him in cinema. Most will recall seeing him first in Michael Bay´s "Transformers," but it was 2007´s "Disturbia" that first allowed the young actor to shine without any special effects or bigger named actors to upstage him.

"Disturbia" tells the tale of a young man, Kale (LaBeouf), who has seen his father die in a horrific car accident and is now forced into a long boring summer after earning house arrest for punching his Spanish teacher. Kale first finds problems in passing time, but soon finds that there is a lot of interesting happenings in the neighborhood around him and he soon finds a pair of red lenses binoculars are his new best friend and allow him to view and discover many intriguing things about the people that populate his neighborhood. However, it is his beautiful new neighbor Ashley (Sarah Roemer) that catches his interest the most. She sunbathes around the swimming pool in a bikini and dances in her underwear in front of her window. This all catches Kale´s interest and he soon finds a friendship with the pretty young girl after she visits his house for seclusion from her parents.

Kale´s mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss) and his best friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo) are the only people besides Ashley that Kale sees during his long days. He increasingly spends time spying on his neighbors and one night witnesses his neighbor Mr. Turner (David Morse) driving a dented blue Mustang into his garage. A description fitting the car was previously reported on the television after a woman disappeared and Kale begins to believe that Mr. Turner is the serial killer that the authorities have been unable to find. The suspicions heat up when Mr. Turner brings home a call girl and mysterious happenings begin around the Turner household. Kale, Ashley and Ronnie begin to spend more time monitoring the activities of Mr. Turner and attempt to gather evidence to show that Turner is indeed a serial killer and that Kale had witnessed the call girl´s murder the previous night.

With a number of apparent Hitchcockian influences, "Disturbia" is a slow building thriller that teases and entertains until the film finally reveals its villain and the grisly horrors of the serial killer´s environment. With similar themes to Hitchcock´s "Rear Window" and featuring musical cues, soundtrack usage and camera movements that should be familiar to fans of the legendary director, "Disturbia´s" director D.J. Caruso pays homage to the master of the thriller and crafts and effective and entertaining picture that could have been successful with an actor other than Shia LaBeouf, but with the talented young actor, the film succeeds on more than it´s directorial merits and is supported by a good leading man.

"Disturbia" is an entertaining film that pays proper homage to Alfred Hitchcock and provides a similar level of thrills and drama that were familiar to the films directed by Hitchcock. The film dances around the topics of sexuality and builds sexual tension to support the tension surrounding the possible serial killer living next door. There have been a glut of thrillers and chillers released in the past couple of years and many of them have become horribly dull and repetitious. D.J. Caruso moves filmmaking back a few decades and slows down the pace and uses the camera´s eye to become a voyeur through the binoculars and other ocular devices used by the film´s main characters. Hints of horror are flashed throughout the first two acts and it isn´t until the final showdown between Kale and the serial killer that anything violent actually occurs. Tension between Ashley and her parents and Kale and his mother help to build tension, as does an unfriendly relationship between Kale and some neighborhood boys. These moments are meant to keep the viewer on edge and unable to settle into a level of comfort.

When the heat is finally turned up, the reward was not as great as I had hoped and I feel the closing moments of the film are not as fulfilling as the rest of the film. Caruso quickly moves "Disturbia" into becoming a typical horror movie showdown between protagonist and villain and when the serial killer meets his demise, it doesn´t feel as well-crafted as the rest of the film. There is nothing crafty or inventive during the finale, which is unlike the rest of the film. After the credits appeared on screen and brought closure to the picture, I was more than pleased with the viewing experience. The film didn´t end as well as I would have liked, but it was a good ride and well done. Shia LaBeouf is going to be a star and this is the first time he was truly able to flex his acting muscle. Along with director D.J. Caruso, they have made a very effective thriller.
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The name David Fincher had first come to my attention when I needed a finger to point blame towards for the horrid debacle known as "Alien 3." The "Alien" franchise was among my favorites after the first two incredible films, but Fincher´s creation simply stunk. The director then made some amends for powerful and gripping thriller "Se7en." That was perhaps my favorite film of 1995. The next time David Fincher´s name came to my attention was his second collaboration with Brad Pitt, the though provoking and entertaining picture "Fight Club." These two films are evidence that Fincher can excel with proper material and his two other major motion pictures, "The Game" and "Panic Room" are themselves solid films. Fincher returns behind the camera with the 2007 true-life thriller "Zodiac."

"Zodiac" is based upon the books by Zodiac Killer chronicler Robert Graysmith. Graysmith was a cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle during the height of the Zodiac Killer murders. Graysmith had become heavily involved with the details surrounding the mysterious serial killer and devoted his entire life to pursuing the facts and hoping to discover the identity of the killer that had baffled police departments across several states. The picture stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Graysmith and features a strong supporting cast including Robert Downey, Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Edwards, Brian Cox, Chloe Sevigny and Elias Koteas. The 157 minute film finds itself released as a bare-bones release on the DVD format, sans any supplemental materials, but with the promise of a future version containing the director´s cut and other bonus materials.

On July 4th, 1969, the Zodiac killer slaughtered Darlene Ferrin and nearly killed her boyfriend Mike Mageau. The film begins with this event and starts looking at the investigation into the Zodiac killer. San Francisco detectives David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards) are assigned to the case and struggle to uncover evidence and create a state of co-operation with Vellejo detectives and the press, which includes reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey, Jr.) and cartoonist Graysmith. The Zodiac killer had sent a letter to Avery and Graysmith had decrypted one of the coded messages sent by the killer. They start to begin their own investigation into the killings and are not always supported by the detectives in charge of the case. Eventually, the uncover their key suspect Leigh Allen (John Carroll Lynch), but are unable to find enough supporting evidence to charge Allen as the Zodiac killer.

As the years pass and the trail begins to get cold, Armstrong transfers to a new department and leaves his partner Toschi as the sole investigator responsible for the case. The hard drinking and hard living Paul Avery dies of a respiratory problem as a result of his smoking. There is hardly any interest in uncovering the facts based upon the Zodiac killings, but Graysmith becomes infatuated with his own investigation and continuing on with the case. He finds a reluctant partnership with Toschi and some of the police detectives from Vallejo and other communities that had been part of the investigation. Graysmith´s fanatical research into the killings brings about an end to his marriage, but it does not stop his pursuit of knowledge. Eventually, Graysmith finds the man he is searching for and believes he has uncovered the true identity of the Zodiac Killer.

"Zodiac" is a very good film by director David Fincher. The film moves slowly and delves deep into the police investigation and details pertaining to the Zodiac Killer and Graysmith´s writings. With the film´s strong attention to detail, the film feels plodding and heavy for long stretches of time, but it never becomes uninteresting. The very strong cast assembled for the production helps "Zodiac" through every scene. There are not many better actors in Hollywood today than Robert Downey, Jr., but Jake Gyllenhaal continually proves he is worth an almost equal amount of praise. The rest of the cast builds credibility towards the real life case detailed by Graysmith and "Zodiac" becomes a superior true-life crime drama that is intriguing in its details and purposeful in its vision. The film cannot eclipse Fincher´s own "Se7en," but that was a fictional work and this is based upon true life. The events in "Zodiac" are difficult to believe, whereas "Se7en" was completely over the edge. Grounded in realism, "Zodiac" does feel heavy, but it never fails to hold one´s interest.
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I spent a lot of time growing up learning to be a rifle marksman. I do not even want to think about how many thousands of bullets I fired or the countless hours of instruction and practice that I put into the sport of competition rifle shooting. Sadly, I never found the desire to take part in actual shooting competitions, but I´ve always taken pride in my ability to hit a dime from a football field away. With my background and love of precision shooting, the film "Shooter" just grabbed my attention and demanded that I watch it. Unfortunately, the shooting elements of the film are both inaccurate, poorly handled and a mockery of the actual art of being a sniper. To give the Mark Wahlberg film "Shooter" any shot at a decent review, I need to look at the film at being another polished and expensive action film starring the former singer who brought us "Good Vibrations."

You always chamber your round before you set your sights on your target. You then take a deep breath and during the slow release of your breath, you kill your target. It is that simple. So why is it that "Shooter" had the main character scope out a can of tomatoes at the range of one mile and then works the bolt and chamber the round of his fifty caliber bullet? That would have certainly thrown off every bit of aiming performed by the character. Maybe I´m looking into this scene a little too deeply, but it was not the only scene that screamed "Hogwash!" The next dirty deed was the main character sniping three bad guys with precision from a .22 caliber long rifle at roughly two hundred and fifty yards. This isn´t an unfathomable distance for the tiny bullet to travel, but considering that the shooter was standing on a boat that was fluctuating with the movement of the water; I have trouble buying into this one as well.

Now that I´ve got my ranting about the unbelievability of the picture, it is time to take a look at the merits of the film itself. The technology was great stuff. I did enjoy seeing the M82 Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle on-screen and if I had the money, I´d buy one in a heartbeat. The .408 CheyTac was even more impressive, but I´ve never been able to see one in person or touch it. The M40 sniper rifle that was also used during the opening sequence of the film is a smaller caliber version of the same rifle I use for my own long distance shooting, the Remington 700. The military uses a .308 Winchester round. I prefer the larger and more potent Remington 7MM Magnum casing. A few other weapons were also seen during the running time of "Shooter," but the CheyTac and the Barrett were easily the coolest pieces of firearm hardware.

Beyond the guns and the precision shooting, "Shooter" is about a Marine Sniper, Gunny Sergeant Bob Lee Swagger (Wahlberg). He is on a secret mission in Africa, when his position is revealed and his spotter is killed. Swagger manages to escape and lives in seclusion in the remote mountains of the United States. He is asked to perform a mission by Colonel Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover). The mission involves staging an assassination of the president to prevent such an act from taking place in either Baltimore, Washington D.C. or Philadelphia. Swagger scouts the locations and realizes that only Philly provides a good opportunity to assassinate the president. Johnson and his partner Jack Payne (Elias Koteas) ask Swagger to remain and help supervise the operation. However, it turns out that Johnson and Payne are behind the assassination attempt and try to pin the murder of an African dignitary and attempt on the president´s life on Swagger.

During his escape, he comes across a young FBI agent, Nick Memphis (Michael Pena). Swagger tells Memphis that he was not the shooter and that a beat cop framed him. Pena is told by his superiors that Swagger lied, but he is knocked down to monitoring the telephones after Swagger stole his vehicle. With nowhere to run and almost nowhere to hide, Swagger turns to the widow of his friend and spotter. Sarah (Kate Mara) first attempts to turn Swagger in to the authorities, but she finds his story honest and decides to help him. Swagger enrolls the help of Memphis, who believes a conspiracy may be at foot and the three plot a way to bring Payne and Johnson down and clear his name.

There are many effective moments in "Shooter" that entertains and excites. Some of the shooter lingo and terminology was accurate and all of the elements that are involved in the ultra-long shots are correct. I´ve never been nearly that good and my abilities start to fall off sharply at five hundred yards. I´ve always respected and admired the military snipers and the film at least gives them credit for the amount of skill involved. It makes some mockery of the training by having Swagger train Memphis to be an effective sniper in a relatively short time, but that is just the third and final major complaint I have about the portrayal of actual shooting in the film. Wahlberg is a good action star and Pena is an up and coming actor that we will see for decades to come. I thoroughly enjoyed seeing both Koteas and Glover in the film. Both are fine and underused actors. As far as being an entertaining action film, "Shooter" is not too bad. If you are expecting to sit down and watch a movie with lots of sniping, then you will be somewhat disappointed. As I was.
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Hot Fuzz [DVD Combo]

The filmmaking trio of Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost are quickly becoming favorites of mine after their absolutely incredible "Shaun of the Dead" and equally entertaining "Hot Fuzz." With Pegg and Wright sharing writing credits, Wright directing and Frost and Pegg sharing screen time, the trio has produced two of the better comedies in the past few years and have paid homage and parodied the genres in which their films are based. "Shaun of the Dead" was heavily influenced by George A. Romero´s landmark "Night of the Living Dead." Romero was so impressed with the film that the actors were awarded a cameo in the director´s fourth film in the zombie trilogy "Land of the Dead." In their follow-up, Pegg and Wright tackle the police/buddy action films such as "Bad Boys" and "Point Break."

The laughs and intelligent spoofs are non-stop as Simon Pegg portrays Sergeant Nicholas Angel. Angel is the perfect cop, but he is too successful and is reassigned to the quiet little town of Sandford, where the crime record is the lowest on the British Isles. Of course, Angel is none-too-happy with the assignment, but accepts the supposed promotion and travels to the quaint little town. Upon arriving, he travels to the local pub and boots a number of under-aged drinkers from the bar and arrests a drunkard who nearly runs over him and nearly demolitions the town fountain. The man turns out to be his eventual partner Sergeant Danny Butterman (Nick Frost). Danny is a good-hearted and well-intended officer who is as green as the town´s grass and eager to learn about Angel´s big city exploits and learn if he has ever dove through the air shooting two guns a la "The Killer."

Although Sandford boasts an incredibly low crime rate, the town has an underlying epidemic of accidents. People are beheaded by a street sign. A man blows up while cooking bacon in his kitchen and a gardener dies when she falls upon her own pruning shears. Danny and the rest of the police force believe these are all accidents, but Angel clearly sees that foul play is afoot and when local reporter Tim Messenger (Adam Buxton) is killed just before conveying information relating to an earlier accident, Angel quickly finds that the problem in the town is far worse and more widespread than previously believed. The key suspect is grocery store owner Simon Skinner (Timothy Dalton), who has an erratic behavior and is prone to making odd comments that relate to the numerous accidents happening around Sandford. The perfect town is far from perfect and Angel´s unsurpassed investigative skills only grate on the patience of the townsfolk and his fellow police officers.

Pegg and Frost are a more-than-capable comedy duo and in the years that come, they have the potential in becoming one of the silver screen´s truly great partners. The two actors´ long friendship is apparent and they feed off of each other through each scene and their chemistry shows the strong bond of friendship they share. They are two everymen that audiences can relate to, and they are two genuinely funny individuals that have a talent for generating laughter. Pegg is a capable leading man and he has been noticed by Hollywood, but his talents are best utilized with his partners Wright and Frost. I hope to see many more adventures featuring the talents of Simon Pegg, but I hope his friend Nick Frost is with him every step of the way.

"Hot Fuzz" is intelligent, witty and captivating. Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright have a gift in their writing and their love of cinema is apparent as they are able to masterfully craft a comedy of this caliber that has been almost universally well received by critics. Comedies are typically the odd stepchild when it comes to critical reception, but both "Hot Fuzz" and the earlier "Shaun of the Dead" have been darlings and for good reason. This is top-notch storytelling and filmmaking. Pegg and Wright have become the masters of comedy and provide a recipe that is better written and far more intelligent than the majority of comedies released. Perhaps only the Coen Brothers surpass Pegg and Wright with their dark and eccentric comedies. The fruits of labor from Pegg and Wright are more easily digested by the mass audience and although their works have a commercial appeal, they have sacrificed none of their artistic abilities.

I laughed heartedly throughout "Hot Fuzz" and although I would place "Shaun of the Dead" a few ounces taller in my proverbial favorite drinking glass, it is a wonderful and effective follow-up to the zombie flick. "Hot Fuzz" captures every cliché of the action/cop buddy film and perfects jabs and homages to those films. The over-the-top scenes are initially eschewed for swan chases and the arrests of drunkards. However, when the townsfolk bear arms against the forces that threaten to change their town; the action joins and surpasses much of what is seen in the blockbuster films it parodies. A small nod to "Shaun of the Dead" is also contained within the film and tastefully awards the filmmaker´s fans with a clever shortcut. Perhaps the most telling tale of "Hot Fuzz" is that this little comedy easily surpasses most of its targets in being the superior film. Nobody will place "Bad Boys II" among their all-time favorites list, but I bet "Hot Fuzz" will be remembered by many.
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Sunday, July 29, 2007

300 [Two-Disc Special Edition]

"300," the 2006 movie adaptation of Frank Miller and Lynn Varley's graphic novel, is something of an audience splitter. Many people, like our own Jason Vargo, loved the film; many other people, like myself, enjoyed the look of the film but longed for more substance; and still other people, like the friend with whom I went to see the movie in a theater and then later another friend and fellow reviewer for another Web site, positively hated it. All I can figure is that while "300" may not be the world's greatest movie, it does provide an opportunity for discussion, which is what film criticism is all about. So, let's get on with it, and Jason and I invite all of you to chime in with your own opinions in our Reader Comments section.

To begin, let me admit that when I first went to see "300" I wasn't exactly sure what I was getting into. I suppose I was looking forward to another "Sin City" type rendering of a comic book to the screen. In that regard, I got exactly what I was looking for. The movie definitely has a comic-book appearance.

(Incidentally, I still see graphic novels as essentially comic books, no matter that they're usually more serious and often in black-and-white. As a former English teacher, it's hard for me to see something that is mostly a series of illustrations as a "novel," with so little prose narrative involved. If there were no words at all, just pictures, would it still be a novel? Is a movie a novel? Not by traditional standards. And why am I going off on this tangent? Because the movie "300" takes a rather a nontraditional approach to filmmaking, just as the graphic novel takes a nonstandard approach to writing. Things are seldom black-and-white, even in the graphic-novel comic-book trade.)

Anyway, Jason will tell you more about the film's plot in a minute (basically, it's one, big battle sequence between a relatively small force of ancient Greeks from Sparta and about a gazillion invading Persians). Meanwhile, I'll just toss out a few random thoughts about the movie in general.

I suspect that one's appreciation for this film will depend on one's tolerance for hack-and-slash. A good part of the story deals with fighting, with huge armies clashing in battle, with people slicing off one another's heads and limbs, and with a great deal of posturing from everybody involved. It's all really quite remarkable to look at, like nothing that's been done in the same way before, and in that regard it is fascinating to watch. But for how long? The movie is 116 minutes, and it seems like about 115 of those minutes involve fighting. I suppose if you have grown up with violent video games, you'll love it; otherwise, it may become tiring.

Next, I found it hard not to like the film's appearance. It's meant to look like the Frank Miller graphic novel on which it's based, and it does. Done up a lot in the style of "Sin City," in that the filmmakers made it appear like black-and-white even though it's in color, "300" even stops and freezes a shot from time to time in order to remind one of the still frames in a comic book. It's quite effective the first few times you see it done, but add to that a healthy dose of slow-motion blood and gore and again, like much of the movie, it gets old fast.

Speaking of framing, the filmmakers also make sure that they block most of the shots the way they were in the graphic novel. We get lots of close-ups, usually with full, head-on sightings, and any number of carefully arranged group shots, usually with each frame meticulously staged and dressed for maximum symmetry.

What's more, as you know, practically the whole film was created on a soundstage, using blue screens behind the actors, the backgrounds filled in later with computer graphics, electronic matte paintings, and such. It's the same technique that worked successfully in movies like "Sin City" and "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow." It works fairly successfully here, too, allowing a relatively small number of actors to portray all three hundred Spartans and probably a few more actors to represent the limitless Persian army. There is never any real sense of reality to it, everything being rather flat and stagey, so just keep in mind that the filmmakers meant it to look like a flat, stagey comic book. The 300 Spartans marching off through the fields reminded me of Dorothy and her friends heading toward the Emerald City. Don't expect in "300" anything like the location shooting we find in Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings," despite the plethora of CGI effects in both movies.

The action is all highly stylized in "300," the actors forever striking poses and the sword strokes looking both real and unreal at the same time. The characters must, after all, remind one of comic-book creations, not actual, flesh-and-blood people. For that reason, every bare-chested Spartan seems to be wearing the same sort of breastplate that Ricardo Montalban wore in "The Wrath of Khan." Well, OK, either that or the filmmakers hired some really buffed-up actors to play the parts. Maybe a little of both, who knows.

Which brings us to the film's lead, Gerard Butler, as the Spartan King Leonidas. Was there ever an actor to star in such a string of high-profile pictures with audiences still not being able to recognize his face? I'm willing to bet that even after his doing "Lara Croft: The Cradle of Life," "The Phantom of the Opera," "Beowulf & Grendel," and "300," most movie buffs wouldn't recognize Butler's countenance from a studio still. Not that he isn't a good actor; he proved that to my satisfaction in the little Scottish film "Dear Frankie." No, in "300" he mainly gets to do what most of the other actors in the film do--flex his considerable muscles. But because the actor plays a character with no discernable personality and because the actor wears a full beard throughout the film, who would know it was Gerard Butler? Incidentally, in several scenes the actor's Scottish accent shows through more prominently than in others, reminding one of Sean Connery and the fact that producers had considered Butler for the role of the newest James Bond.

In the end, I'd rate the movie's graphics an 8/10 and its plot and characters a 5/10, rounding out to about a 6/10 overall score from me. The rating at the conclusion of the review is an average of Jason's and my scores combined.

"Our arrows," says a Persian, "will blot out the sun."
"Then," responds a Spartan, "we will fight in the shade."
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Purple Rain

First off, you have to understand that Prince is a much better singer than he is an actor.

Second, it helps to remember that "Purple Rain," in which Prince made his screen debut in 1984, is a much better music video than it is a personal drama. Keep those two things in mind, and you may enjoy the movie better.

The story appears to be at least semiautobiographical in that it recounts the rise of brash young Minneapolis singer and his band, The Revolution, as they come up through the ranks in a nightclub called First Avenue. Prince plays the young singer, referred to only as "the Kid," as somebody too wrapped up in himself to notice the people around him, until he meets another young entertainer, Apollonia (Apollonia Kotero), with whom he falls in love. At least, he loves her as much as he loves himself. It's only when he finally sheds his ego that he becomes a success, so we find the movie contains a moral along with a ton of good music.

The opening number sets the stage, going on for about ten minutes, while bits of the plot unfold in the background. It's a rollicking sequence, joyous really, and sparkles from beginning to end.

Then the actors begin to mouth some words, and we learn what we're up against; namely, that this movie is not going to win any acting awards. Frankly, the acting is dreadful. When the Kid and Apollonia first see each other, they give one another the eye, and it's one of the most awkward moments I've seen in a major motion picture. There follow, however, moments of equal clumsiness from practically all the actors, many of the performances laughable they're so bad. The timing is off, the phrasing is ungainly, the pauses between responses are sometimes monumentally prolonged. When Prince speaks, it's as if he took thespian lessons from Sylvester Stallone, he murmurs and mumbles so much. Yet he's one of the better actors in the piece. They're all so bad, they speak as though they were reading the words for the first time, and they make one wince in pain having to listen to them deliver a line.

Fortunately, there is so much good music involved, both between bouts of melodrama and behind them, that it easily distracts one's mind from the clunky histrionics unfolding in the story line.

The main conflict in the movie, besides the inner, psychological one going on the Kid's head, involves a rival singer named Morris (Morris Day) and his band, The Time. Any similarity between these characters and real-life characters is purely not coincidental. Morris tries to steal Apollonia away from the Kid and use her in his own band, but do we care? Not really. Almost nothing the characters do or say has much motivation, much explanation involved, so plot-wise things are pretty much at a dead-end.

Yet the characters have a curious charm about them. Despite the Kid's cocky, stubborn self-pride, Prince makes him engaging and charismatic. Apollonia is hard-edged but vulnerable. And Morris is probably best of all, not for his acting, but for his self-effacing humor. He seems like the only person in the movie having a good time. He doesn't take himself or his character as seriously as Prince does, and for that reason he makes his role more memorable. Heck, he even does an Abbott-and-Costello routine that's kind of cute.

The 1980s were a time of unbounded optimism, and we see it in the film. The young people have dreams of making it big, and with perseverance and talent, they do. The fact is, the music album probably did better than the film did, as it should have because the music is quite fetching, with energy, punch, and sparkle. The climactic song, "Purple Rain," is actually rather moving.

"Purple Rain" gets an R rating for profanity, nudity, and some steamy, stylized sex.

Trivia: For reasons unknown, WB's press site lists the HD DVD as having a running time of 114 minutes, and they mark 114 minutes on the disc case. But the same press site lists the 20th Anniversary Special Edition (SD) at 111 minutes. Moreover, my Toshiba's time counter as well as the Internet Movie Database say the film's running time is 111 minutes. I'd go with 111.
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Are We Done Yet ?

Memo to screenwriter Hank Nelken: Please pick up a book on the theories of humor--any book--and note that SURPRISE is a key element. Whether you buy into the relief theory or any of the others, deep-thinkers agree on one thing: If we can see a joke coming, it's not funny. That, sadly, is the whole problem with this sequel to 2005's "Are We There Yet?" You can see every gag coming five miles away, and you don't even need binoculars.

Nelken's script seems to trot out every tired and familiar gag or situation that we've seen in cheap-laugh films over the past 20 years, and the result isn't pretty. "Are We There Yet?" at least gave Ice Cube a chance to react on a road trip he had to take with the two bratty children of a woman he fell in love with, and we got a few kicks way-off Route 66 by watching him. Here, though, either Cube is numbed cold by the flat comedy or he was reined in too much by director Steve Carr ("Dr. Doolittle 2," "Daddy Day Care"), because there's nothing funny about a guy who's so deadpan in his response to physical comedy that he seems dead.

"Are We Done Yet?" shipped to theaters under the title "Needs Work," and it surely does. Though the title credits declare it to be a remake of "Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House," which starred Cary Grant and Myrna Loy, it doesn't come close to capturing the comedy of situation and character that the 1948 film provided. "Are We Done Yet?" isn't even as funny as "The Money Pit," a disappointing 1986 remake with Tom Hanks and Shelley Long.

Maybe it's all about the law of diminishing returns. Take raccoons, for example. Though it was just as over-the-top as a scene in this disappointing film, that bit in "Elf" where Will Ferrell tackles one of the critters still made you laugh. When you see the same sort of raccoon confrontation in "RV" it's not nearly as funny, because you've seen it before. So by the time Cube gets out on a roof with a broomstick to battle the corn-nut eating bandit, there isn't so much as a smile to be had. He falls through the roof, and we're supposed to burst into laughter. Yeah, right. Although, to be fair, children might giggle, and maybe that's where this film is pitched. After all, the extras are "led" by the two young stars who play the slightly less bratty children this go-round, Aleisha Allen as Lindsey and Philip Bolden as Kevin.

Nick Persons (Cube) is feeling cramped after he married Suzanne (Mia Long) and she and her two children moved into his small apartment. He's sold off one business and is pursuing a dream of trying to launch a sports magazine. Of course, it's tough to do business or write when you have crap all over the house. It's also tough for most viewers to believe that any household could be such a pigsty, or that the kids could get away with thwapping him with food. In most houses, their little bottoms would be thwapped in return. Here, Nick just stands there until the last of the gag-messes lands on him, and then it's house-buying time.

It's not clear why Suzanne takes the lead and sets up an appointment to view a country house, then ends up being the reluctant one. Then again, it's not clear how people who were forced to live in such a modest, cramped apartment suddenly have the money to buy a palatial home built in the late 1800s--one which has enough land to farm on and an outbuilding that's perfect for visiting relatives . . . or a home business like Nick's. It's also not clear where the deep-pockets come from for Nick to give the go-ahead to contractors every time another disaster befalls them. Dry rot? Thousands of dollars? Go ahead. Electrical re-do? Just get it done. I've got a hundred-year-old house myself, and you agonize over ONE contractor's proposal.
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In the DVD's accompanying featurette, the filmmakers explain that they were trying to create the noir feel of "Blade Runner" and James Ellroy crime novels in their 2006, black-and-white, animated sci-fi thriller, "Renaissance." Judging by everything that I saw, they succeeded, if only superficially, in recreating the feel of either, mostly duplicating the look but not quite the substance.

The French filmmakers released their movie to various festivals all over the world and then to limited release in a few countries, but it didn't get much play. It is essentially making its world debut on DVD. One can understand audiences not exactly going wild for the film. While it looks terrific, it is rather muddled in its plot and fairly mundane in its characterizations.

Christian Volckman directed the movie, but his only previous directorial effort was an eight-minute short called "Maaz." No recognition, eh? None here, either. Nor had I ever heard of "Renaissance" before. Yet the film had a good-sized budget for an animated feature. I wonder who green-lights these risky projects, or do the governments of some European countries subsidize these things?

In any case, the plot is typical of many sci-fi adventures, with a handsome hero investigating crime in a future totalitarian society. It's set somewhere in the mid twenty-first century, and the government of France controls everything that anybody does, and spies on everyone everywhere. More important, big business pretty much controls the government; in this case, it's a cosmetics conglomerate called Avalon, whose motto is "Health, beauty, longevity. We're on your side for life." They sell youth and beauty to the populace, at any price.

When one of Avalon's top researchers in the field of anti-aging goes missing, they demand the government find her. In turn, the government assigns a crack team of investigators to do the job, a team lead by Captain Barthelemy Karas (voiced in the English dub by actor Daniel Craig). The story has Karas going here and there in a rather complex way, looking into the possible kidnapping and, of course, meeting an assortment of bizarre, shady, quirky characters along the way.

Most of it is quite ordinary, and at no point does any of it catch fire or produce much excitement, tension, or suspense. The characters, for all their oddities, are flat and dull, and the plot is clichéd. Worse, there is never the faintest glimmer of humor in the proceedings, making it a long haul for 105 minutes.

Still, what it does have, besides the fine animation discussed below, is a good cast of voices. In addition to Craig (007), there is Romola Garai ("Scoop") as Ilona Tasuiev, the young woman gone missing; Catherine McCormack ("Spy Game") as Bislane, Ilona's older sister; Jonathan Pryce ("Brazil") as Paul Dellenbach, the head man at Avalon; Ian Holm ("LOTR") as Dr. Jonas Muller, Ilona's research supervisor; and Kevork Malikyan ("Flight of the Phoenix") as Farfella, a big-time crime boss who takes great baths.

Although these characters are well voiced, they are one-dimensional personalities. We don't even get to know Karas, the main character very well, except to learn that he grew up the hard way in the Casbah. How can we feel any sympathy for people about whom we know nothing?

I suppose when you think about it, the plot of any old noir thriller is muddled, so maybe that is what these filmmakers were after, something the audience would have a hard time following. If that was, indeed, their intent, they succeeded beyond their wildest expectations. If I hadn't been taking notes, I would have given up on the plot about a third of the way into the movie. To liven things up, the film carries an R rating, mostly for language, nudity, and sex. Well, this is a French film after all, cartoon or no.
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Masters of Horror: The Black Cat

"Re-Animator" director Stuart Gordon has made a career for himself by developing his cinematic versions of works from some of the all-time great science-fiction and horror authors. He's successfully adapted everything from H.P. Lovecraft ("From Beyond") to Edgar Allen Poe ("Pit and the Pendulum") to Ray Bradbury ("The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit"). Hell, Gordon even did a decent job bringing a David Mamet play ("Edmond") to the screen. Never fearful of revisiting familiar themes (he's done Lovecraft no less than four times), Gordon returns to the macabre world of Poe once again.

Gordon teamed up with frequent collaborator Dennis Paoli to craft yet another high mark for the generally uneven horror anthology show "Masters of Horror" that airs on Showtime. Poe's tale of murder, guilt, and felines has influenced numerous films, the most noticeable being 1934's "The Black Cat." To be fair, the Universal film is better known for being the first flick to pair up horror screen legends Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi than for its ties to Poe. In the seventy-plus years since Universal first attempted to bring "The Black Cat" to life, several more attempts were made. While they all shared the same name as the Poe tale and sited it as their inspiration, none, not even the Karloff and Lugosi vehicle, followed the author's original story. They all just featured, in one way or another, murder and a black cat.

Poe's short story about a man who murders his wife and cat, then conceals the body behind a newly built wall in his basement, is as familiar as "The Raven" to anyone who has ever walked past a library. The problem is that "The Black Cat," like most of Poe's works, is simply too short a tale to lend itself to a ninety-minute film. Perhaps the stunning job Gordon and company did with this sixty-minute episode will convince some cable television executive to cancel whatever horrible Stephen King miniseries they have planned for this Halloween and give Poe's works the treatment they deserve.

Paoli and Gordon's script doesn't simply retell the painfully familiar story; it fleshes out the story by making a pitifully drunk Poe the protagonist. It was a risky move, but one that paid off by casting beloved genre icon Jeffrey Combs as Poe, complete with a prosthetic nose and wig. The always dependable Combs gives a great performance as the notorious lush of a poet. As amazing and captivating as Combs' occasionally scenery-chewing performance is, the real star is David Pelletier's cinematography. The majority of the film uses consistent earth tones, so when the blood begins to flow or is simply coughed up by Poe's wife Virginia (Elyse Levesque), it has a major impact on the viewer. While the blood may not initially flow fast enough for some fans, they should all stay tuned for the final minutes of the film. Gordon, who has never been one to shy away from the gore, gives us the best axe wound ever shown on television.
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Esther Williams, Volume 1 [TCM Spotlight]

The 1930s and 40s saw Hollywood elevate several prominent, real-life swimming champions to stardom. Johnny Weissmuller won five Olympic gold medals between 1924 and 1928 and became a movie Tarzan in 1932 and Jungle Jim in 1948. Buster Crabbe won the gold in the 1932 Summer Olympics and became a movie Tarzan in 1933 and Flash Gordon in 1936. Then came Esther Williams, a teenage swimming champion summoned to Hollywood in 1942 and starring in her first aquatic movie, "Bathing Beauty," in 1944. She went on doing films for the next twenty years, formally retiring from the business in the early 1960s.

Williams did most of her work for MGM, and Warner Bros. are issuing it in several volumes, the first of which we'll look at here. "TCM Spotlight: Esther Williams, Volume 1" contains five films spanning her most-productive years from 1944-1953. Let me tell you briefly about four of them, and afterward I'll go into more detail about the one I like best.

Chronologically, things start with her first starring role in "Bathing Beauty" (1944). Directed by George Sidney, it costars Red Skelton, Basil Rathbone, Bill Goodwin, Ethel Smith, Jean Porter, Harry James, and Xavier Cugat, the latter two with their orchestras. It's a big, colorful, silly musical with plenty of underwater work from Williams and plenty of zaniness from Skelton as a songwriter engaged to her. Mostly it's a series of skits looking for a plot, but it can be fun in spots. 5/10

Next is "Easy to Wed" (1946), directed by Edward Buzzell and co-starring Van Johnson, Lucille Ball, Keenan Wynn, Cecil Kellaway, and Ben Blue. It's a rather lame comedy that barely gets off the ground. 4/10

From 1948 comes "On an Island With You," and Williams is on more solid ground as she gets back into the water more. Still, it's another lightweight affair with Peter Lawford, Ricardo Montalban, Jimmy Durante, Cyd Charisse, and Cugat and his orchestra again. Directed by Richard Thrope. 5/10

Things improve with the final two films in the set, "Neptune's Daughter," reviewed below, and "Dangerous When Wet" (1953). Directed by Charles Walters and co-starring Fernando Lamas (whom she later married), Jack Carson, Charlotte Greenwood, William Demarest, and Donna Corcoran, "Dangerous When Wet" finds an American family swimming the English Channel. Plus, its big number is a sequence with MGM's animated stars, Tom and Jerry. I mean, what more could you ask for? 5/10

But it's "Neptune's Daughter" from 1949 that is probably the quintessential Esther Williams vehicle in this collection. Directed by Jack Cummings, here she reunites with old film buddies Red Skelton, Ricardo Montalban, and Keenan Wynn, along with Xavier Cugat and his orchestra. It's a romantic comedy with music; call it a romantic musical comedy, if you will. Although it hasn't much story (or many good jokes), its characters and music are appealing.

The main thing the movie has to do is get Ms. Williams into as many bathing suits as possible and surround her with as much music as the listener can tolerate. On these counts, the movie succeeds. Williams plays Eve Barrett, an amateur swim star who turns professional by co-partnering a swimsuit company with a fellow named Joe Backett, played by Keenan Wynn. Eve designs and models the swimsuits; Joe takes care of business. It becomes quite profitable for both of them.

Enter the romantic angles, in the unlikely opposites of Red Skelton and Ricardo Montalaban. An all-star South American polo team comes to town for a big match against the U.S. all-stars, and it's Joe's idea to stage a swimsuit spectacle for the event in order to promote their product. Betty Garrett plays Eve's younger, airheaded sister, Betty (great casting for the name), who mistakes a moronic masseur named Jack Spratt (Skelton) for the captain of the South American team. Meanwhile, Eve gets involved with the real captain of the team, Jose O'Rourke (where do they get these names?), played by Montalban, not knowing who he really is.

The film flip-flops back and forth between the Skelton-Garrett episodes, which are quite slapsticky, and the Williams-Montalban sections, which are more romantic in a rocky sort of way. In between the gags and the romance, Xavier Cugat and his orchestra play some lively numbers, and various characters sing some Frank Loesser songs. As usual in these kinds of musicals, people break out into song and sometimes dance at the drop of a note. The musical highlight of the show is the song "Baby, It's Cold Outside."

Oh, and Mel Blanc (WB's voice for most of its animated characters back then) gives us his patented, Speedy Gonzales imitation as Julio, a South American character mysteriously identified as "Pancho" in the closing credits.

"Neptune's Daughter" puts plenty of other girls on display in bathing suits besides Williams, but it's Williams whom the film usually features. The odd thing is that Williams and her co-star Skelton (co-billed equally) have so very little screen time together. It's almost as though they were in two different pictures.

The movie ends with a big, splashy water show, and what else would you expect? 6/10
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Last Mimzy, The

Making any kind of a movie is hard work, and much of it is spontaneous and intuitive. If there were a blueprint for making a successful movie, filmmakers all over the world would be following it. Instead, we get hit-and-miss attempts all the time. Making a live-action fantasy movie that its filmmakers hope will appeal both to children and adults only doubles, maybe quadruples, the work they have cut out for them. New Line's 2007 live-action fantasy "The Last Mimzy" tries to do just that, appeal to children and adults, and it points up the difficulties of the job. If you look back on a few of the films that did succeed in this rather narrow category, films like "Mary Poppins," "E.T.," and "The Chronicles of Narnia," for example, you can see how difficult it is to produce a winner. "The Last Mimzy," I'm afraid, is not in the same league.

"The Last Mimzy" tries hard to be magical, charming, and endearing but remains mostly flat and lifeless, much like a typical Lifetime Channel movie on TV. Based on a short story, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" by Lewis Padgett and directed by Robert Shaye, whom people might know better as a producer of such things as "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Lord of the Rings," "The Last Mimzy" tries to update Lewis Carroll with a modern tale of a little girl and her brother going through the looking glass, metaphorically speaking. Alas, as Agatha Christie would say, the mirror cracks.

The movie's main appeal for children is the fact that its two main characters are kids. The movie's appeal to adults is the technology it employs in its story line and the fact that its four supporting players are adults. Is it enough to capture the interest of children or adult viewers? I doubt it. It didn't capture my attention. I found most of the characters and the story line rather mundane.

The main character is Noah Wilder (Chris O'Neil), a ten-year-old boy living with his parents and younger sister in Seattle, Washington. Noah, like most kids these days, is into video games, text messaging, cell phones, IPods, widescreen TVs, and the rest of the electronics world; and, naturally, he's bored. But he won't be bored for long (even if the audience is). You see, the movie begins by telling us that an advanced future civilization created a series of "Mimzy's" and sent them back through time. The "why" is better left unsaid. Noah and his sister find one of these devices in a box near their home, and it causes them no end of trouble.

Noah's sister, Emma (Rhiannon Leigh Wryn), opens the box, and inside she and Noah discover what they think are toys--a magical crystal that can create enormous energy, strange rocks that can levitate themselves and other objects, a mysterious shell that can increase a person's hearing a hundredfold, and a cute, little, stuffed bunny rabbit that is a ringer for the one Alice Liddell (Lewis Carroll's inspiration) carried with her. The futuristic bunny also talks to Emma and tells her its name is Mimzy (as in Carroll's "Jabberwocky" but with a "z" instead of an "s"). Do the kids share any of this information with their parents, David and Jo (Timothy Hutton and Joely Richardson)? Not on your life. Remember the business of hiding E.T. in the closet? Same thing here. The filmmakers would not have had much of a conflict if the movie's adults started researching these objects.

Instead, the kids play with the things and explore their mysteries themselves. Noah wins a science-fair prize at school with his newfound genius for physics, and Emma creates an energy sphere that scares away her baby-sitter. Do the parents catch on? Of course not. Parents have to be more than a little dense in any kids' movie, or kids wouldn't like it.

The other two adults in the story are Noah's science teacher, Larry White (Rainn Wilson), and his fiancée, Naomi (Kathyrn Hahn). Larry keeps having dreams of a Mandela, a symbolic representation of the universe, that looks exactly like the drawings Noah makes at school, based on the design of the box he and his sister found. Larry doesn't think his dream and Noah's drawings are coincidental, and he becomes involved in the plot incidentally.

Despite the potential for movie magic in all of this, "The Last Mimzy" stays earthbound throughout most of its running time. Part of the problem is that the filmmakers never develop their characters or give them any kind of meaningful backgrounds. The film only tells us that the Wilders are an ideal family, owning a house in town and a house on the water, driving a new Mercedes, and so loving and together that when the father returns from work, the kids greet him with hugs and kisses. Then, when the Mimzy artifacts show up, everybody begins acting irrationally. I mean, how much sense does it make, for instance, that when the mother finds out about the technological marvels her children possess, she gets hysterical and throws them in the garbage? Hello? Is she an idiot?
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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

For the past several months, three films have had their names connected with bringing independent horror to the masses. These reportedly "groundbreaking" films and filmmakers are supposedly going to disassemble the sad state of modern horror that seems to revolve around the now gluttonous "Saw" franchise. Hopefully, the forthcoming "Black Sheep" and "Hatchet" will be able to do it alone, because "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon" isn't up to the task. How can anyone expect much of a film that simply treads over ground broken more than a decade ago?

Much like the popular Christopher Guest comedies, "Behind the Mask" is a fake documentary that puts a comedic spin on its topic. But there are two main differences between "Mask" and one of Guest's hilarious films like "Best in Show." The first is that "Behind the Mask" takes place in a reality where horror franchise icons like Jason Voorhees, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers actually exist. Their crimes that occurred at Crystal Lake, on Elm Street, or in the town of Haddonfield weren't the fabric of cinematic legend but real-ife tragedies. And, two, no matter how hard it tries, "Behind the Mask" just isn't funny. Either way, Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), a new slasher icon, is ready to stake out a name for himself, and in an effort to boost his popularity, he's gotten himself a film crew to document his bloody arrival.

"Behind the Mask" is a completely underwhelming experience for genre fans with a few all-night horror marathons under their belts. The film wastes no time in showcasing its naïveté and exposes its annoyingly clumsy nature within the first few minutes. The filmmakers put little effort into making you believe that slashers like Leatherface and the rest actually exist. Rather than build any actual tension or create plot-propelling moments about this rather unique take on horror history, director Scott Glosserman takes the easy route. He simply shoots footage of Kane Hodder (one of the many men to don Jason's trademark hockey mask) taking out the garbage on a suburban street that is supposedly named Elm. This inability to create a real atmosphere where even a droplet of fear can exist is extended the first time you meet the lanky killer himself.

All of the aforementioned killers are either hulking brutes that could swing you by your leg into the house across the street (Jason, Myers), disfigured butchers (Freddy) or both (Leatherface). Leslie Vernon (Nathan Baesel), on the other hand, is a wiry, pleasant-looking, funny guy who looks more like a young Jim Carrey than a psycho killer. It's a long time until you actually see Vernon in costume and that alone makes the mere idea of this goofy guy being a hard-core killer one of the many unintentionally funny traits of "Behind the Mask."

The film becomes even harder to swallow when Leslie and the crew have dinner with one of Vernon's "co-workers." Eugene (Scott Wilson) is a retired slasher who has taken Leslie under his wing as a mentor of sorts. While the film is chock-full of many silly moments that will have most dedicated horror fans groaning with displeasure, the scenes with Doug and his wife Jamie are the hardest to swallow. Killers from horror movies work under a blanket of anonymity, their seclusion from the public one of their defining traits. So having them discuss their "trade" in front of a camera securing their image and recollections for all eternity takes viewers completely out of the film, and sadly "Behind the Mask" refuses ever to invite them back in.
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A couple of years ago, a little known J-horror movie, "Yogen" was released here in the US. It came and went without much fanfare. I managed to catch this movie on DVD last year and I must say that I was really impressed and I certainly rank it up there with some of the best J-horror releases in recent years. Fast forward to this week and as I was watching this Sandra Bullock-helmed movie, "Premonition," I sort of remembered that there was another movie with the exact same title. Yes, you guessed it. By coincidence, the English title for "Yogen" is also "Premonition." After having watched both movies, I came to the conclusion that other than the title and the looking-into-the-future theme, they are completely different stories. "Premonition" is not a remake of "Yogen". This is rather unfortunate because "Premonition" could have learned a thing or two from its Japanese namesake.

If you have seen the trailer for "Premonition," you might be forgiven for maybe mistaking it for a horror movie because it is anything but. Instead, this movie really falls in the mystery- thriller genre with a small dose of non-linear storytelling sprinkled in for good measure. However, when I say non-linear, it is definitely not in the same vein as say, a "Pulp Fiction" nor is it in reverse order like "Memento." "Premonition" pushes its non-linearity through a different route, which I would not reveal here, since it would be a great spoiler. Although the movie trailer might make it seem a little creepy, there is nothing really supernatural about this movie--no ghosts or spirits to be found here. I actually found this movie to be more psychological than paranormal.

Linda (Sandra Bullock) and Jim (Julian McMahon, "Fantastic Four", "Nip/Tuck") Hanson is a typical suburban couple with two young daughters, Megan (Shyann McClure) and Bridgette (Courtney Taylor Burness). They live in a nice house in a good neighborhood and at least on the surface, everything seems to be hunky-dory. However, one gets the sense that there is a hint of trouble in their marriage even though both husband and wife do not seem to want to acknowledge it. But all that gets shelved once Linda gets a dreaded knock on her front door from one Sheriff Reilly (Marc Macaulay), informing her about Jim´s death in a horrific car accident. Hit with such devastating news, Linda progresses into a semi state of shock. With her mother (Irene Ziegler) arriving at the house to help with the children, Linda is finally able to go to sleep that night on the couch, probably wishing that all that had happened that day was just a bad dream. Well, she may yet get her wish--sort of.

The next morning, we find Linda waking up on her bed instead of the couch, dressed differently from the night before. Sensing something amiss, Linda walks downstairs to find none other than Jim having breakfast in the kitchen, looking perplexed at her stunned reaction upon seeing him. Could it all just have been a really bad dream? Or was it a dark foretelling of things to come? The next day, things get shaken up again. Linda wakes up, goes downstairs and disturbingly finds a good number of people in the house, all there to attend Jim´s wake. What is really going on here? Could she had been in such a state of shock that her perception of reality has become so distorted? Or could this be a result of the medication that she might or might not have taken, judging by an empty prescription bottle on her sink.

By that juncture, most savvy moviegoers would have already started to mentally compile the various visual clues in their minds, hoping to find an answer to Linda´s and by extension, the audiences´ predicament. Is she reliving a future event over and over again? Which day is really the actual timeline? Or, heaven forbid, this is all just a silly nightmare (which would pretty much suck for the audience). For a majority of the movie, the audience is kept in total suspense as to what Linda´s actual reality is. Waking up each day to either find your husband alive and well or dead can be disconcerting to say the least. This movie´s see-sawing storyline is greatly helped along by a very credible performance from Sandra Bullock, whose nuanced approach to her character provides most, if not all of the tension felt in the first half of the movie. While "Premonition" seemed well on its way to a thrilling finish, the final act rolls along and the pace surprisingly tapers down and morphs from a legitimate mystery-thriller into a plodding moral exercise as Linda begins to ponder what she is supposed to do with her sudden insight into her immediate future. Divine intervention is even hinted at some point. Losing that early momentum clearly hurts this movie towards the end.
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Wedding Date

Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney star in the 2005 romantic comedy "The Wedding Date." Messing is best known for her role as Grace Adler on the television series "Will & Grace" and Dermot Mulroney has had a supporting role in numerous films, including "Young Guns," "My Best Friend´s Wedding" and "About Schmidt." Neither actor can be confused as being a box office draw and with a sub-par story, overly cute moments and play-it-safe demeanor, "The Wedding Date" is a horribly plain romantic comedy that excels in absolutely nothing. With no star power and no redeeming qualities, it is surprising that the $15 million dollar picture grossed roughly $32 million in box office receipts.

Kat Ellis (Messing) is a jaded woman who must attend her sister´s wedding and come face-to-face with her ex-fiancé. She still pines for the man who had dumped her and decides to hire a high priced escort to attempt to make her ex jealous and hopefully win him back or have him realize the folly of his dumping her. The escort, Nick (Dermot Mulroney), is a suave, good looking and intelligent man who knows what women want and has all of Kat´s female friends from home swooning over him. She finds him attractive, but her strong feelings for her ex keep her blind to the fact that he has found an attraction with her as well. This weekend at home turns up a few stones involving Kat´s ex and her sister, as well as a few other twists.

In "The Wedding Date," we are led to believe that Nick found something in the phone messages from Kat and after seven calls; he finally agreed to become a wedding date for the first time. We are then led to believe that Nick desires to be with Kat and tries hard to win her over as her escort. This whole concept of perfect man falls for a beautiful but flawed woman after he has escorted countless other women seems a bit too thin to be even remotely believable and with each pathetic mention of her ex, Jeffrey (Jeremy Sheffield), it becomes more and more unlikely that this short set of days would be enough to find the two helplessly and madly in love with each other.

The film walks the R-rating line and attempts to inject sexual situations and humor, but the resulting PG-13 rating only has these more adult moments feel silly and uninspiring. The PG-13 rating isn´t a problem with romantic comedies, but the film spends a large portion of its comedy joking about sex and placing its characters into steamy situations. However, the rating gives the film an "all bark and no bite" feeling. It just makes "The Wedding Date" even duller. One of the characters in the film, TJ (Sarah Parish) is clearly the cigarette smoking, foul-mouthed, overly sexual friend that is a staple of many romantic comedies. With "The Wedding Date" ultimately lacking any sexual energy, her character is completely wasted.

There are so many better romantic comedies out there that this sub par offering is hard to recommend. Debra Messing is cute and she has a little spunk to her, but she cannot carry a film on her own small shoulders. Dermot Mulroney isn´t a bad actor and he is just fine as the object of every woman´s desire, but the film tries to hard to make Nick perfect and after a while, the dialogue and actions of the character just do not back up the hoopla associated with the character by every female in the picture. The estimated $15 million budget certainly wasn´t spent on talent, but the film could have been better served with one of the leads being an A-List talent.
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Mystery Men

Maybe I am truly a mental case and should find myself locked up in a padded room and hand in my union card for the Movie Reviewer´s Union. But for some reason, I thoroughly enjoyed "Mystery Men" when it was in theaters. I continued to love the film when it was released onto DVD and my affections have not swayed much now that the film is available on HD-DVD. I find the film to be refreshing, interesting and completely hilarious. Public and critical reception was chilly and the poor theatrical showing nailed shut the franchise coffin. This is disappointing because I would love to see the further adventures of the "Mystery Men."

This mockery of comic book superheroes is well done. A top-notch cast has been brought together and director Kinka Usher brought these comic book misfits to life for his first directorial effort. The film succeeds wonderfully and achieves its goals. I find myself having great troubles trying to find the failure in this picture. I have never been a fan of comic book superheroes and only "Batman" sparks my interest. I feel "Superman" is silly and "X-Men" complete overkill. Perhaps my general dislike of comic book superheroes is why I bonded with this film. I still laugh at just the thought of the scene where two characters discuss that a wealthy citizen cannot be the superhero because he wears glasses.

Incredible actors William H. Macy and Geoffrey Rush join notables Hank Azaria, Claire Forlani, Jeanne Garofalo, Greg Kinnear, Paul "Pee Wee" Reubens, Ben Stiller, Wes Studi and Tom Waits in this well acted ensemble picture. Each actor brings their character a set of flawed traits that adds to the films direct hit of mocking the popular comic books and the heroes contained on their printed pages. Macy is incredible as usual and how many people ever thought that Pee Wee Herman would commit flatulence in the face of Academy Award winning actor Geoffrey Rush? I have seen knocks on Ben Stiller for his role, but he was just fine as a man with no powers but an inflated ego and bad temper. Wes Studi is simply marvelous as an advice given superhero, but perhaps the only flaw in the film is that he fails to use any of his powers in the climax.

"Mystery Men" is about a band of misfits who believe they have powers. They band together to save the heavily promoted and only true superhero of Champion City, Captain Amazing (Greg Kinnear). The original three heroes consist of The Shoveller (Macy), the fork throwing Blue Raja (Azaria) and their leader, Mr. Furious (Stiller). Without any direction, the three fail to stop any crimes, but their failures do now sway their attempts at trying to be the Superheroes they see themselves to be. When they have their collective arses handed to them by a band of thugs, a decision is made to recruit more members. This finds the Bowler (Garofalo) and the Spleen (Reubens) joining the team, as well as an invisible boy who can only be invisible when nobody is looking. When they find themselves defeated again, they come under the tutelage of the Sphinx (Studi). Finally, after they make some new outfits they are ready to confront Captain Amazing's nemesis, Casanova Frankenstein (Rush) and save Amazing.

I tell you again, the film succeeds. It is completely hilarious. The cinematography and set design work perfectly for the picture and Usher shines at the helm of his first major motion picture. Everything comes together well in the film. It looks and sounds great and is full of laughs. I want to blame marketing on this picture and critical backlash from too many critics who need a broom pulled from their rectal area. Don't listen to anybody but me on this one and go see the picture. It's a wild ride that far from disappoints. It is just a shame that these characters will never be revisited for a second battle against crime.

One of the strengths of "Mystery Men" is in its visuals. A definite comic book look has been achieved with this picture. Bright colors and foreboding dark scenes both make up the look of "Mystery Men." This film takes the visual approach of "Batman Forever" and "Batman & Robin" and puts them where they belong. The two Batman films that tried to achieve a comic book look failed partly because of the visuals, but in "Mystery Men," the look strengthens an already solid film. There is still plenty of neon and the various uniforms are colorful and each frame of "Mystery Men" brings the film´s comic book origins to live-action existence.

Sadly, "Mystery Men" doesn´t improve much over the original standard definition offering. The 1.85:1 picture appears to have been minted from the same master as the old release and simply encoded at a higher resolution for the next generation offering. I have been looking forward to seeing how this great looking film would look on HD-DVD for quite some time, but must admit that I am quite underwhelmed by this release. The plentiful and brilliant colors that make up the picture are slightly improved over the DVD release and are still vivid and well saturated. The film contains many scenes that take place in the shadows and night. The black level of these scenes is very good. Shadow detail is a decent, but not as rich as it could have been on HD-DVD. The source materials are clean and not many flaws can be seen during the film´s length.
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