Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

reel roy 2I’ve been reading movie reviews since I was a kid. Every Friday, I’d go for the reviews in the Philadelphia Inquirer’s weekend section before I hit the funnies. Even now, I’ve been known to guiltily flip past the front section of the paper to check out the movie reviews before going back to read about more weighty matters.

And Roy Sexton is the first movie reviewer to ever make me laugh out loud.

Not just once either. I made the mistake of bringing his latest book — “Reel Roy Reviews, Vol. 2: Keep ’Em Coming” — as reading material on Philadelphia’s PATCO High Speed Line. Spent the entire trip giggling like a stoner in study hall. I think I scared some people. It would be worth getting the book just for his side-splitting evisceration of “Transformers: Age of Extinction.”

Here’s the great thing about Sexton’s humor, though. Even when he’s trashing a film, he’s got a rare knack for being sharply funny without coming across as snide.

You can tell Sexton is one of those guys who just really enjoys the experience of going to the movies. Reading his reviews is like heading to the cineplex with an affable, really-freakin-funny friend. For a sparsely attended afternoon matinee, maybe, where you can put your feet up on the seats and do a “Mystery Science Theater” without feeling like a jerk.

If you and your friend like the movie, great. If not, you can still have a blast ripping on it, and laughing about how bad it was over beers later.

In his second volume of reviews (see my review of the first volume here), Sexton expands the scope a bit. He includes more reviews from concerts and regional community theater productions from his home turf of Michigan. He even has a few pieces about the local theater scene. Even if you don’t have any inherent interest in Michigan community theater, the latter have a pleasant local-newspaper-columnist feel that you don’t see enough of since this whole digital age thing happened. Besides, Sexton is the kind of guy who could write a septic tank installation manual, and still be fun to read.

What I enjoyed most in the book, weirdly enough, were the reviews of movies I wouldn’t have any natural inclination to watch. Not because he artfully lambasted them, but because he made them sound like fun.

His innovative approach as a reviewer is to evaluate the overall experience of watching a movie, rather than judging it as good or bad according to some film scholarly criteria that — let’s be honest — most film viewers don’t particularly care about in the first place.

It brought me back to those pre-Netflix days when I’d sometimes watch movies not because I’d specifically chosen them, but just because they were on.

I don’t do that anymore. When I’m watching a movie now, it’s one I’ve read about and determined will likely be worth the time I’m investing in it. Something critics have praised, or else a less revered but still cinematically significant film watched out of obligation to shore up cracks in my cultural literacy.

Nothing wrong with that. Still, Sexton’s book reminded me of the half-forgotten pleasures of accidental viewing. Discovering a glorious piece of cheese like “Roadhouse.” Or watching Jean Claude Van Damme now being acknowledged as a gifted comic actor, and knowing you picked up on that the first time you saw “Kickboxer.” Or maybe the fifth time. Or maybe … what is this … the 15th viewing? Hell, I don’t even remember. Hey! “Big Trouble in Little China” is on next! BOOyah!

Ah, those were the days.

Sexton is a welcome reminder that movies like “300 — Rise of an Empire” can still be a hell of a lot of fun. Especially if you’ve got a hilarious guide along with you.

Oh yeah. Be sure to check out more of Sexton’s stuff at his Website, Reel Roy Reviews.

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muppetsI’ve been thinking lately about Jim Henson’s early involvement with “Saturday Night Live.” Though it was ostensibly a failure, it’s something that I actually find quite inspiring.

I didn’t see the recent 40th anniversary special for Saturday Night Live, and I don’t know if the special mentioned it. But Jim Henson’s Muppets were a regular feature on Saturday Night Live’s first season in 1975.

But it wasn’t the 40th anniversary of Saturday Night Live that got me thinking about it, so much as this great write-up on The Dissolve, which recently made 1979’s “The Muppet Movie” its “Movie of the Week.” Particularly the idea of Kermit the Frog as a surrogate for Jim Henson, with his unfailing optimism and his ability to get other people to share his vision. Not through arm-twisting, so much as an ability to convey his child-like sense of wonder and fun, and have others want to be a part of it.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I consider Jim Henson to be a genius.

And I’m still in awe of what Saturday Night Live did in its first seasons, with the original cast.

I was nine when the first season premiered, and I remember what a big impact it had over the next few years until the original cast left in 1980. I’d compare it to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus,” or the early days of “The Simpsons.” It wasn’t just brilliant, but a game changer. (more…)

A weird, reclusive dictator is displeased with the United States, and may or may not have enacted his vengeance via a crack team of computer technicians over a world-wide computer system that dominates every aspect of life in the 21st century.

Yup. As a 48-year-old science fiction geek, I’ve got to admit that sometimes the modern world outstrips even my most outlandish flights of imagination from childhood.

Of course, wonderfully paranoid science fiction stories about computers are nothing new. Check out this piece from the great Neil Morris about an overlooked classic of the subgenre. This recently ran in the December issue of “The Speculator,” the newsletter for the Garden State Speculative Fiction Writers. If you’re not a member, consider becoming one. Getting the newsletter is just one of many perks.

Anyway, here’s the piece.

 

Neil’s Queue Tip of the Quarter:

Colossus: the Forbin Project (1970)

 

by Neil Morris

 

There’s a conflict inherent in movies: the battle between images and words.

In the silent era, printed title cards delivered dialogue and description, but this static, written material, usually inserted with a jarring cut, disrupted the photographic flow of film “language” and visual storytelling.

In the thirties and forties, words thrived in the form of spoken dialogue. This was due in part to the novelty of audio recording itself, but the main reason was that movies were still no more than cheaply-made filmed plays, photographically immature and economically influenced by the Depression. Shooting in remote, picturesque locations was costly and inconvenient, so producers mindful of the bottom line relied on inexpensive banter (writers, sadly, were a dime a dozen) to entertain an audience. Screwball comedies and sophisticated detective stories dominated, piling one charming line upon another to the point of verbal overload.

Later technological advances, particularly the rise of television and its influence on the development of theatrical widescreen formats, brought about a change in attitude toward the recorded word. Producers began to disapprove of scripts that were too “talky”; lengthy conversation belonged on the old soundstages that were now hosting televised dramas sponsored by detergent companies. Instead, studios wanted action-packed spectacles in Cinemascope.

Ever since the epic style of William Wyler’s “Ben-Hur” and David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia” made filmmaking less lean, technology continues to push motion pictures toward the purely visual. CGI, with its ability to photo-realistically render any conceivable camera movement, gives kinetic-eyed artists unlimited creative power. That freedom has resulted in the ascendancy of the action movie. Ever-increasing waves of hyperactive eye candy rush across multiplex screens, from “Gravity” to “The Lego Movie” to the latest Marvel adventure. Even films that strive for the cerebral, like “The Matrix” or “Inception,” hide their intellectual aspirations behind crowd-pleasing gunplay sequences and dazzling explosions.

Then there are movies like “Transcendence,” movies that should be thought-provoking, that should give insight into the nature of existence given the subject matter, that could benefit from long, quiet moments of complex philosophical discussion, but devolve into mindless, special effects-filled shoot-em-ups (against pseudo-zombies, of course) because box office pressure and the cinematic zeitgeist demand it.

The tragedy of “Transcendence” reminded me of another film about the perils of artificial intelligence (no, not “A.I.”), one that was made in 1970, years ahead of its time, at a point in history when filmmakers challenged the conventions of the Hollywood system, when imaginative and compelling dialogue could still rivet an audience’s attention, and directors like Woody Allen and John Cassavettes could still have careers.

Unfortunately, it’s saddled with one of the most indecisive and informatively inaccessible titles in motion picture history.

I’m talking about “Colossus: The Forbin Project.”

What’s Colossus? What’s a Forbin? Why invoke that unholy word: Project? Didn’t the producers know that Project in the title of anything is an indication of off-putting pretentiousness and self-indulgence? Think Joe Perry Project, Alan Parsons Project, “Project X” and especially “The Mindy Project.” Perhaps they wanted to make a connection with The Manhattan Project, equating the digital dangers portrayed in the film with the dangers of the atom bomb.

After all, “Colossus” is a Cold War film, and Colossus, the titular computer designed to take missile defense decisions out of the hands of a responsibility-shirking presidential administration, is a product of the nuclear tensions between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. That Colossus becomes self-aware is an afterthought, its sentience unexpected and unexplained, much like the suddenly-emergent consciousness of Skynet in the early “Terminator” films. But at least it’s an intelligence that knows what it wants and knows how to say it, unlike the reticent ghost in the machine Johnny Depp plays in “Transcendence,” his intentions misunderstood because of his secretiveness and inability to communicate clearly.

Colossus’ voice, once it’s synthesized midway through the film, is no soothing HAL 9000, velvet tones disguising treachery. It’s mechanical, terse and gritty, but thoroughly captivating, like what God would sound like if He used Stephen Hawking’s talkbox. It’s not your buddy, it’s not your therapist. It’s the voice of authority, or as Colossus puts it, the voice of control — with a capital C. When broadcast to the world, Colossus spells out its plans for humanity in no uncertain terms.

Adapted from the D.F. Jones novel by screenwriter James Bridges (“The China Syndrome”) and directed by Joseph Sargent (director of the original, somewhat verbose, but no less suspenseful “Taking of Pelham One Two Three”), Colossus is a film centered on language. Apart from an excursion to Rome, the story takes place in a handful of sets where politicians and scientists sing the praises of their creation then must plot against it in secret when the entity turns on them, risking discovery that will incur swift ICBM retribution. Colossus and its simultaneously-developed Soviet counterpart, Guardian, invent and share an indecipherable mathematical language, much like the private speech between identical twins. Dr. Charles Forbin (Eric Braeden, before he became Victor Newman on “The Young and the Restless”), a stern perfectionist of immense ego and insensitive directness (just watch what he so matter-of-factly asks of colleague Susan Clark), knows his invention well when he says, “Colossus deals in the exact meaning of words and one must know precisely what to ask for.”

If only Dr. Forbin had considered that when he encoded Colossus’ prime directive.

****SPOILER****

For if anything, Colossus is the reflection of its creator, a ruthlessly logical being, and rather than perceiving it as a superior intellect bent on enslaving or eradicating an inferior human race, it should be seen as a dutiful soldier carrying out its programming to the literal extreme. Colossus’ given mission is to prevent war, and it took Dr. Forbin at his word, reasoning out the most efficient solution: Restrain Man.

This post comes courtesy of my friend Doug, who’s a big Star Wars fan. And don’t get me wrong. I love Star Wars myself. But if Doug is right about this, then the franchise has a lot to answer for. I mean, even more than the last three movies. And the 1978 holiday special. Take it away, Doug:

Jon Bon Jovi’s first professional recording was “R2-D2 We Wish You a Merry Christmas”

The album is notable for featuring the first professional recording of Jon Bon Jovi (credited as “John Bongiovi”, his birth name), who sang lead vocals on the song “R2-D2 We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” His cousin Tony Bongiovi co-produced the album and ran the recording studio at which it was recorded, where Jon was working sweeping floors at the time.

So did this launch his career?

 

clownHappy Halloween, everyone! Seems an appropriate day to address this subject.

By “horror,” I’m talking about the fiction genre. This isn’t going to be some kind of Nietzsche-ian rant about embracing the inherent horror of existence. If you want that, you’ll have to look elsewhere. (You also might want to consider lightening the hell up.)

This is strictly about how books and movies with monsters in them tend to be pretty freakin awesome.

I could talk about the roller coaster adrenaline rush of horror fiction. But for now, I’d rather talk about the artistry.

Now, I know that some serious literature types would snort into their cognac at the preposterousness of using the word “artistry” to describe horror fiction. As I’d be the first to admit, I’m a man of simple tastes. I like my genre fiction.

Let’s leave the subject of literature for a second and talk about visual art, as in paintings. Personally, I’m not a big fan of abstract art. The whole idea of a painting a light blue stripe on a dark blue background and saying it represents the existential despair of life in the post-industrial age seems too easy somehow. Representational art may be the domain of bourgeois Philistines like myself. But it at least sets a baseline for craftsmanship, for competence, that the artist has to reach before accomplishing anything else.

The representational artist can still make her painting into a statement about existential despair in the post-industrial age if she’s so inclined. But she first has to achieve enough competence in her craft to make buildings look like buildings and people look like people.

That’s why I’m a fan of vaudeville-style entertainment such as juggling and stage magic. There’s also that element of a baseline level of craftsmanship before you can achieve anything else. Want to incorporate some social commentary into your juggling routine? Go ahead. But make sure those balls stay in the air. Want to turn your magic act into avant garde theater meant to illustrate profound truths about the human condition? Fine, as long as the audience doesn’t see that card go up your sleeve.

So it is with two genres of writing in particular — humor and horror. (And for the purposes of this post, I’ll expand “writing” to include movie screenplays.)

When I was on a writers panel at the Western Md. Independent Lit Festival at Frostburg State University earlier this month, I mentioned a quote by the great writer Joe Hill to the effect that humor and horror operate by essentially the same mechanism.That made sense to me. Humor and horror must both have two components to work — transgression and surprise.

But another similarity between humor and horror is that both require that baseline level of craftsmanship I was discussing. As with literary fiction, you can use them to explore whatever topic or theme you want. That’s not enough. In the case of humor, you have to provoke amusement in your audience or readership. And in the case of horror, you have to generate fear.

Nowhere near as easy as you might think, in the case of horror. Just throw in a monster, a killer or a ghost, right? Add a few jump scares. The monster jumping out of the closet or whatever. Then call it a day.

It’s a lot more complicated than that, especially if you’re writing for horror fans. They know all the conventions. Adhere to those conventions too closely, and the story becomes predictable to a point where it’s no longer scary, or even interesting. Ditch all the conventions entirely, and the story’s probably not going to work. The reason those conventions exist in the first place is because they’re effective.

A good horror author, or director, walks a fine line. He has to rely on certain conventions and techniques to get effects, yet wield them with enough creativity and innovation that he achieves the element of surprise so crucial to his chosen genre.

It doesn’t have to be anything really elaborate, either. Simplicity often yields the best results.

Prime example? During the panel, I mentioned the 1982 movie “Poltergeist.” (Written by Steven Spielberg, and directed by the great Tobe Hooper of “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” fame.) Specifically, I brought up the scene with the toy clown, and knew I’d hit a nerve.  You could practically feel a shudder run around the room as people relived the first moment they saw that scene.

Bit of a spoiler coming up here, so be forewarned if you haven’t seen “Poltergeist.”

Anyway, sure it’s scary as hell when the animated toy clown reappears to attack the kid. But the REALLY scary part comes before that. The kid looks at the toy clown, sitting in the chair and staring at him with that creepy rictus grin. The kid makes a visible effort not to think about it as he pulls up the sheets and attempts to sleep. He can’t stop thinking about it, of course. He pulls down the sheets to check on that clown one more time. And the chair … is empty.

Man!

Think of the movies with hugely expensive setpieces and CGI effects that don’t achieve one tenth of one percent of the soul-chilling terror that “Poltergeist” pulled off by the mere act of removing a toy clown from a chair.

THAT, my friends, is artistry!

 

 

TransformersThe DVD release date of “Transformers: Age of Extinction” will be here in less than two hours, Eastern Standard Time. I believe that movie coming out on DVD, along with a hail of fire and the oceans turning to blood, is one of the signs of the Apocalypse cited in the Book of Revelation. Beware. Anyway, film reviewer Roy Sexton of Reel Roy Reviews has generously allowed me to run his review from the movie’s original theatrical release here. Should you be tempted to rent it … well, consider this a public service announcement. And be sure to check out more of Roy’s reviews at reelroyreviews.com.

T.J.

 “Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.” Transformers: Age of Extinction

Have you ever seen a movie so astoundingly awful that you find yourself overwhelmed, gobsmacked, dumbfounded to the point you don’t even have words?

Yeah, Michael Bay, that’s the impact of your latest creation Transformers: Age of Extinction.

I knew going in that this would be a dumb, loud b-movie. I even relished the potential for mindless fun. I’ve seen the other three, forgettable as they are – though I don’t mind Dark of the Moon too much (either as a Pink Floyd album or as a Transformers flick). And, yes, Michael Bay has gotten to a point where every film he makes is him flipping the proverbial bird at liberal Hollywood … and at good taste.

But, good googly moogly, this installment may be final evidence that Bay’s cinematic nervous breakdown is totally complete.

I don’t even know if it’s worth bothering to summarize the plot. Mark Wahlberg, looking like a sad and puffy plumber in T-shirts two sizes too small, plays a down-on-his- luck single dad and robotic engineer (yeah, I know) in Texas who discovers a dilapidated semi-truck embedded in a dilapidated movie theater (yeah, I know). Of course, every shot is art-designed to look like a sepia-toned Abercrombie & Fitch ad … or a Buick commercial … all grungy, wholesome Americana.

Well, duh!, the truck turns out to be Autobot leader Optimus Prime hiding out from big bad CIA operatives led by Kelsey Grammer (yeah, I know) who is hunting down all the Transformers to mine their metal skin for something called “Transformium” (yeah, I know) that Stanley Tucci (shamelessly aping Steve Jobs) will use at his fabulously appointed tech company in Chicago/Hong Kong to create America’s own army of robots to defend us from future alien incursions (yeah, I KNOW).

It’s just not even any fun to ridicule this movie. The film is so self-consciously horrid that it’s like shooting rubber bands at a Teflon skillet.

The movie runs an interminable three hours, more or less, and is an unending series of chase scenes and things-blowed-up-real-good and tin-eared dialogue. I thought Zack Snyder was my go-to cinematic caveman, but I’d forgotten about Big Daddy Bay, whose male insecurity manifests itself in an avalanche of phallic images and orgasmic explosions and flag waving (?), not to mention some rather kinky torture scenes. Is this a kids’ movie? Ah, Michael Bay and his angry inch.

It goes without saying, that the heroes (whomever or whatever they are exactly) win the day and leave things wide-open for the inevitable sequel. This involves murdering a gaggle of CIA agents (cause the gubment is BAD, see?), destroying pretty much all of Hong Kong (cause no one is supposed to like the Chinese but they spend a lot of money going to movies so we’ll blow up Hong Kong cause it’s all sorta British and doesn’t really count), planting or not planting or destroying or flying away with some cosmic “seed” (subtle metaphor there!), and assorted other mayhem and corny one-liners all too inconsequential to delineate.

This movie is like comic book porn for FOXNews aficionados.

I suspect the next movie will be four hours long, with even more randomly racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic images and themes all edited together in the most confoundingly inept way possible.

(I suspect some internet trolls will tell me I’m mixing personal politics into my “objective” review. My blog. My site. Never said I was objective. What reviewer is? Viewing a film is a subjective, singular experience. Neener neener neener.)

And, in the inevitable fifth (!) Transformers movie (yet, only three Godfathers!), another A-list actor undoubtedly will be slumming it. At least in this “film,” Stanley Tucci (unlike franchise vets Frances McDormand and John Turturro) wisely realizes he is in a completely bonkers enterprise, allowing his character to just start screaming out obscenities like he’s having a Tourette’s-fueled meltdown.

Watching this film, I felt like joining him. It was pretty much the only joy I had the whole three hours.

I take that back. The greatest joy was that friends Jim and Sean braved this crap with me. And that, between our rounds of church pew giggles and guffaws (we weren’t the only ones doing so, I might add), they were jotting down all the godawful lines they couldn’t wait for me to include in this review. (In fact, I kept getting texts from Sean today asking, “When are you going to post it?!?!”)

From Sean: “I think you should definitely note that, thankfully, the movie is left with a cliffhanger, paving the way for Transformers 5! ‘When you look at the stars, think of them as my soul…’ – Optimus Prime.” Even Gary Cooper couldn’t have sold that clunker of a line.

From Jim: “Here’s your title … you know that quote thing you do? When Wahlberg is roughing up Tucci, blaming him for all the turmoil, Tucci replies, ‘…Well, you brought your family and that is terrible parenting.’” Tucci is a touch wittier than a CGI robot, so at least that gem elicits a chuckle or two … and is a nice little indictment of anyone who brings their kids to see this dreck.

From me: at the film’s conclusion, Nicola Peltz, who plays Wahlberg’s Lolita-90210 daughter, intones, “We don’t have a home, dad. It blew up.” No kidding.

Cat Women of the Moon

Posted: September 25, 2014 in Movies
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Want evidence that the American movie industry was well aware of the Freudian nature of marketing back in 1953? Check out the juxtaposition of words and image at the :56 mark.