Screen Junkies » Reviews http://www.screenjunkies.com Movie Reviews & TV Show Reviews Fri, 28 Nov 2014 16:30:46 +0000 en hourly 1 http://wordpress.org/?v=3.3.1 Review: ‘Nightcrawler’ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-nightcrawler/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-nightcrawler/#comments Fri, 31 Oct 2014 21:31:37 +0000 Jared Jones http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=266706 If Ben Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo, then Gyllenhaal is the goddamn Kuz'kina Mat in Nightcrawler

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By Jared Jones

I have to hand it to the ad agency behind Nightcrawler’s marketing; they knew exactly what their product was and exactly how to push it accordingly. If you’ve caught any of the TV spots for the film — which, by virtue of you being here I’m going to assume is the case — you surely realized that the movie is being sold as “Jake Gyllenhaal…(*dramatic pause*)…ACTIIIIING!” That’s Nightcrawler‘s hook, its premise, its endgame, and fortunately for those of us who appreciate honesty in filmmaking, it delivers on what it promises.

To put it in layman’s terms, Gyllenhaal acts the sh*t out of this thing. If Ben Affleck was the bomb in Phantoms, yo, then Gyllenhaal is the goddamn Kuz’kina Mat in Nightcrawler. He takes the role of “Lou Bloom: Self-Help Sociopath” out to a candlelit dinner at a fancy restaurant, holds every door, and respectfully blackmails it into entering a sexual relationship with him after three dates like a gentleman.

When we first meet Lou Bloom, he is quite literally scratching to survive, stealing chain link fences and manhole covers around town and selling them to the local scrap yard for prices that “are far below market value,” as he’s quick to point out. He asks for a job at the scrap yard, listing off his strengths and positive attributes with the kind of go-getter enthusiasm that would give a recruiter a wet dream, but gets turned down because he is a thief, and scrap yards “don’t hire thieves” (which, yes, they do. That’s literally all they hire.).

On his drive home, Lou comes across a particularly vicious car wreck and decides to pull over — not to help, mind you, but just to lurk. Have I mentioned that Lou Bloom is something of a creep? Because I feel like the promos for Nightcrawler nailed that message home as well. Anyway, it isn’t long before cameraman Joe Loder (Bill Paxton) pulls up beside Lou to do a little lurking of his own; the difference being that Loder is actually getting paid to capture the gruesome scene for the morning news, or at least, whichever news station is willing to pay him the most.

The promise of easy money is enough for Lou, and from that day forward begins his relentless pursuit of a career in video journalism that he quite literally stumbled upon, and one that draws him further away from anything resembling a moral compass with each assignment. Along the way he picks up a hapless but well-intentioned burnout of an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed), and develops what he probably considers a “relationship” with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director arguably as bereft of empathy as Lou himself.

And that’s pretty much it. Like a character out of a SIMS game, Lou simply decides upon a course of action and follows whatever carefully thought out plan he feels is necessary to achieve it. He is a cold, calculating, one-dimensional lifeform comprised of motivational tapes and online classes who has neither an understanding of basic human interaction nor a care to warm up to it. While Lou will inevitably draw some strong comparisons to Patrick Bateman, that would almost be giving Bloom’s sense of humanity too much credit. Whereas Bateman would occasionally shows some cracks in his shell, be it by a psychotic break or otherwise, Lou is unquestioning and unflinching in the face of his own depravity.

No, Nightcrawler is something closer to Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, if you ask me. It’s a story almost entirely removed of plot, a character study removed of ark. There is no twist, no moment of emotional compromise or clarity, or even a resolution really. Writer/Director Dan Gilroy simply offers a 90-minute window into the life of a man who just is, and honestly, it’s f*cking fascinating. Gyllenhaal has been absolutely crushing it as of late; churning out diverse, dynamic roles in End of Watch, Zodiac, Prisoners, and Source Code among others, but his performance in Nightcrawler might just be the one that earns him the mainstream respect he deserves. Go see this movie as soon as possible, if only so you can smugly say you were a fan of Gyllenhaal before “everyone started liking him.”

Grade: B+

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Review: ‘Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)’ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-birdman-or-the-unexpected-virtue-of-ignorance/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-birdman-or-the-unexpected-virtue-of-ignorance/#comments Fri, 24 Oct 2014 21:39:59 +0000 Jared Jones http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=266539 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the best movie we've seen this year, last year, three years before that, and maybe ever.

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By Jared Jones

I’m just going to come out and say it: Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the best movie I’ve seen this year, last year, three years before that, and maybe ever. It is a film that manages to only outdo its inventive story and Oscar porn performances with its technical wizardry, and if you don’t go see it this weekend I am going to come to your house, remove the part of your brain that allows you to think independently, and just kind of Weekend at Bernies you into the nearest theater that’s showing it.

Was that a fanboyish enough breakdown for you? Good, because for film nerds, watching Birdman is like taking LSD for the first time; it redefines your understanding of boundaries, or at least, where the line can be drawn when it comes to the capabilities of cinematic storytelling. At the risk of sounding cliche, Birdman is an experience. I would normally refer to my notes to cite specific examples, but it was a good 25 minutes into the movie before I even realized that I was watching it as a reviewer and not a simple film fanatic. I was too caught up in the technical brilliance of it all to honestly take away much critical insight.

What’s Birdman about? Well, according to IMDB, it’s about “a washed-up actor who once played an iconic superhero must overcome his ego and family trouble as he mounts a Broadway play in a bid to reclaim his past glory.” And to be fair, that is the basic jist of it. Michael Keaton plays the aforementioned washed-up actor, Riggan Thomson, who is attempting to mount a comeback by adapting, directing, and starring in a staged production of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Also on Riggan’s plate is an impending financial and mental meltdown, a fresh-out-of-rehab-daughter, Sam (Emma Stone, whose Tarsier-esque eyes are on near-luminescent display here), an insanely method co-star, Mike (Ed Norton), and oh yeah, potential telekinesis, but that’s not the point of it.

Not that I know what the “point” of Birdman is either. Between the film’s musings on social media, a man’s midlife crisis, the meaninglessness of fame and respect, and the impossible pursuit of perfection that drives creative-minded people to their breaking point and beyond – Birdman isn’t exactly an easy movie to go metaphor-hunting in. But who knows? Maybe there is no point to it at all to the movie. Maybe Birdman is meant to be taken as a simple exploration of all these things and their ultimately futility in the grand scheme of things.

I guess we should talk about Birdman’s ”gimmick” for a moment, which is not a gimmick at all, really. The film — or at least, 99.5% of the film — is shot in one continuous take. One impossible, practical, claustrophobic, vast, serene, nerve-racking take. And while movies like PVC-1 or La Casa Muda have attempted to pull off this Hitchcockian feat to varying degrees of success, Birdman does it flawlessly (if disingenuously), and with purpose. Not only is this technique employed to blur the line between Thomson’s reality and his ever-permeating delusions, but it perfectly captures the claustrophobia and dread building up inside Thomson in the days leading up to his play’s premiere. By never once pulling back to establish the world it is taking place in, Birdman never allows Thomson (and by extension, the audience) to take a breath. It doesn’t have time to beat you over the head with expository dialogue or clue you in on what you’re actually watching. This is Broadway, there’s no time to explain anything, dammit!  (*pirouettes offstage*)

Simply put, I cannot recommend this film enough. It’s visually arresting, witty, hilarious, depressing, uplifting, meta…all those things. Birdman is *all* the adjectives. Go see this movie as soon as possible or else I’ll be paying you a visit.

Grade: A+++++++ 

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Review: ‘Gone Girl’ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-gone-girl/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-gone-girl/#comments Sun, 05 Oct 2014 17:55:16 +0000 Jared Jones http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=265779 See it if you've read the book. See it for Affleck's dong. We don't really care why, but just go see Gone Girl.

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By Jared Jones

My mind was a mess heading into David Fincher’s Gone Girl, constantly fluctuating between extremes of fanboyish optimism and sickening trepidation. Not having read Gillian Flynn’s novel upon which the movie is based, I made a conscious effort to learn as little about the story as possible, all the while battling with my preconceived notions that the film could only play out in one of two ways: in the brooding, meticulous nature of Fincher’s 2007 procedural thriller Zodiac, or in the dull, lifeless manner of 2011′s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo remake.

And to it’s credit, Gone Girl is very much a movie that relies on building a certain level of expectation before punishing you for being so goddamn judgemental. It was the perfect project for a master of neo noir like Fincher to adapt, one that attempts to raise the murder mystery (or rather, how a murder mystery story is often told) to a higher artistic level while dialing up all the pulpy elements that make us appreciate the genre so, and actually manages to maintain its own unique identity when being held against Fincher’s more recent aforementioned works.

On the morning of his fifth anniversary, college professor and failed writer Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) finds himself at the bar (his bar, actually), tipping back glasses of bourbon with his sister (Carrie Coon) and wondering when or where his marriage to the lovely Amy (Rosamund Pike) went wrong. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Amy is a writer herself and something of a local legend, having been the inspiration behind a series of heralded childrens books. Nick, on the other hand, is a corn fed Missourian (by his own admission) who enjoys a good reality TV marathon with a hand down his pants, Bundy style. She and Nick met at a cocktail mixer and shared an instant, seemingly unbreakable attraction to one another, which more or less equated to a lot of f*cking. “I really like you,” Amy says while Nick is going down on her. “You have a grade-A vagina” says Nick moments before proposing to her.

Between all the anniversary scavenger hunts and kinky, exhibitionist sex, it seems like Nick and Amy have it all, and it is the exploration of their early relationship (often told through a series of Amy’s journal entries) in the first half of the film that truly elevates Gone Girl above the level of most genre faire. We aren’t given a few select moments to define Nick and Amy as characters, but rather a slow, tense examination of a marriage torn apart when, to borrow a common cliche, life gets in the way. The admiration Nick and Amy once had for one another is replaced by bitter jealousy, their passion replaced by apathy, infidelity, and fear. Or so we’re led to believe.

It all comes to a head on that morning of their anniversary, when Nick returns home to find his wife missing amidst a conveniently-staged crime scene. His alienating demeanor and seemingly carefree treatment of Amy’s disappearance instantly makes him the prime target in her disappearance, with everyone from the feds to Missi Pyles’ Ellen Abbott — a sensationalist, dim-witted reporter that could not be a more obvious rip at Nancy Grace — labeling him as an incestuous sociopath who, like, totes murdered his sweet, innocent wife. Amy’s journal entries only aide in painting Nick as the cold, slowly-unraveling murderer that the evidence already has done a bang-up job of doing, and when we learn that Nick is putting it to his 20 year student on the side when he’s *not* hiding evidence from police, it’s almost impossible not to jump to the conclusion Fincher is all but cornering us into.

But then, about halfway in, Gone Girl throws away any semblance of realism it built up and dives headfirst into the public pool of Flavortown WhattheFucksville. While a less deft hand could have played up the film’s twist like a cartoonish episode of Law & Order, Fincher is somehow able to flip the switch without it feeling like a cheap cop out. In a scene straight out of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, believability is replaced by a madness that confounds you as much as it makes you want to stand up at a Yankees game and start rooting for the Sawx. Through its clever use of several genre tropes (the red herring and the unreliable narrator chief among them), Gone Girl presents its story as it wants us to understand it, and then, like an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, it strips back the veneer to reveal the world in all of its drunken, hamfisted glory. And it is glorious.

To discuss Gone Girl any further would be entering into spoiler territory, but I will say that, at two and a half hours, it never overstays its welcome. Gone Girl is easily Fincher’s warmest film to date, in both its palette and oddly enough, it’s reliance on dark humor. Seriously, the screener I went to had the audience in stitches, to the point that I wasn’t sure whether they were laughing to break the film’s suffocating tension or because the lighter moments were actually that funny. In any case, Gone Girl is a gorgeously-cinematographed, ridiculously entertaining experience that makes for one of Fincher’s finest efforts to date.

Grade: A

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The Film Cult Presents: Hard Candy http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-hard-candy/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-hard-candy/#comments Fri, 19 Sep 2014 17:27:29 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=265243 The revenge Page’s character takes out on Wilson is calculated, diabolical. It’s hard to argue that Wilson's character doesn’t deserve it, so I won't. That said, there is a sense of the predatory to Hayley. She’s been working at this.

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Okay, kids. This week, we’re going dark. After reviewing Contact last week, and Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work the week before as a tribute to the recently passed comedy icon, I thought it was a good time to take a bite out of a weird, uncomfortable movie that also happens to be awesome.

Before she was Juno, Ellen Page was Hayley, a smart teen who at first glimpse seems innocent and vulnerable. We meet her through a flirtatious online chat she carries out with Jeff, played by the eternally beautiful Patrick Wilson, the all-round good guy photographer with the beautiful LA house and the smile to match. What follows, after they decide to meet in person, is a cat and mouse game that under the helm of any other, less-talented actors would veer into schlocky kitsch. But with Wilson and Page leading the charge, what we get is a psychological thriller about the atrocities of sexual child abuse.

I cannot understate how awesome Ellen Page is in this movie. I’m pretty sure she was born an acting genius. Her acting is acute, visceral. Still only a teen, her timing is perfect, and the breadth of her chops is masterful. From one moment to the next she’s vulnerable then vindictive, logical then irrational.

Her acting is most assuredly matched by Patrick Wilson’s, who’s been making amazing, understated movies for years. He plays the good guy with a secret so well that when you find out he ‘s a child molester you’re so disappointed you can’t help but start to root for Ellen Page’s character Hayley. He’s got that glint in his eye, that charismatic laugh. He’s got it all, just as so many predators do, the perfect blend of nice guy sexy to lure his victims.

The revenge Page’s character takes out on Wilson is calculated, diabolical. It’s hard to argue that Wilson’s character doesn’t deserve it, so I won’t. That said, there is a sense of the predatory to Hayley. She’s been working at this. She didn’t just find this pedophile in the street. She’s been hunting him, just as he’s been hunting his own victims. She’s been working overtime to concoct a trap for her prey. And what a trap it is. I’ve never seen a faux castration play so well on screen. She then, not unlike Hanibal Lector, goes straight for the mind. She knows how to get under Jeff’s skin, whispering what will happen if he doesn’t turn himself in, and ultimately, if he doesn’t kill himself, which is her ultimate goal.

I love movies in which there is no happy ending. For instance, my favorite movie of all time is Rosemary’s Baby. I love when no on wins. I get so sick of everyone living happily ever after. That’s not life. No, in a movie where the two main characters are both a little nuts, and one of them is an actual pedophile, motherfuckers are gonna die.

Using his ex-girlfriend against him, Hayley leads Jeff to the roof of his LA home where she slips a noose around his neck. This scene, in which she convinces him to commit suicide, is reminiscent of the famous scene in Hitchcock’s Rebecca in which Mrs. Danvers tries to convince the new Mrs. de Winter to jump from the window of Manderlay. Thankfully, Mrs. De Winter doesn’t jump. Jeff—the beautiful photographer with the seemingly perfect life—does jump.

One of the great things about this film is what makes other films like Rosemary’s Baby so amazing. Not one moment of child abuse is depicted on screen. The abuse is only ever vaguely spoken of. I don’t like torture porn movies where young people are hurt. I can’t handle that shit. Not only do I think it’s unseemly, but I also think it’s more effective to leave it all to the imagination. That’s where the real danger lies, in our mind.

Hard Candy is a great, low-budget psychological thriller that everyone should see. You’ll never watch Juno in the same way again.

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Review: “Tusk” http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-tusk/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/review-tusk/#comments Thu, 18 Sep 2014 14:17:15 +0000 Jared Jones http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=265127 Tusk stretches its wafer-thin premise far beyond its breaking point, and the result is an all too long inside joke that looks like a poor man's Wes Anderson directed a homeless man's Human Centipede.

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By Jared Jones

A little less than a year ago, Kevin Smith claimed that he would retire from filmmaking upon completion of Clerks III. It was only a few months before he amended that statement, claiming that “From now until I drop dead, I’m only ever gonna make a flick that only I would/could ever make,” citing several of his past works (Cop Out, Zack & Miri) as films that “anyone” could make.

That being the case, I’d sure as hell like to know what Smith finds so unique about his latest effort, Tusk, which contains neither the sardonic wit that punctuated his more cherished works nor adds anything even remotely innovative to the torture porn genre it is supposedly parodying. Tusk isn’t nearly as hilarious or fresh as it thinks it is, resulting in a final product that looks like a poor man’s Wes Anderson directed a homeless man’s Human CentipedeThanks Kevin, but I’d have much preferred something closer to “The Midnight Coterie of Sinister Intruders.”

The wafer-thin premise of Tusk can be explained in less than a logline (“Lonely old man converts young douchebag into walrus”), likely because it was spawned during the recording of a podcast which itself was relaying an online classified Smith had randomly stumbled upon. That is not meant as a criticism, necessarily, as great ideas can and do often come from everyday inspiration. 2012′s Safety Not Guaranteed was similarly borne from a bizarre Gumtree ad and was one of the most memorable movies of the year because of (or perhaps, despite) it, but it is Smith’s inability to add anything to Tusk aside from its hook that truly drags it out of the “good-bad” territory it promises and into the “just bad” territory where it ends up.

But then again, perhaps I spoke too soon. I suppose Tusk *is* unique in its ability to overplay yet simultaneously undersell the few hands it tries to deal its audience over the course of its slow slog to the finish line. There isn’t a single “joke,” flashback, or cutaway in Tusk that doesn’t proceed to kill whatever momentum it builds up by overstaying its welcome, and each scene plays out with the kind of meandering carelessness that all but forces you to assume that Smith was making the whole thing up as he was going along. “Quirky” and “funny” are not interchangeable concepts, though Tusk seems to posit that they are, and the result is a 90-minute exercise in self-satisfaction that is too busy patting itself on the back for having the “balls” to commit to one inside joke that it never even bothers to attempt any others. The only thing missing from Tusk is an empty wine glass to fart in.

If Tusk fails as a comedy, it fails twice as badly as a horror movie. Justin Long, possibly in some sort of meta-commentary on his negative public perception, stars as Wallace Bryton, the most grating, unredeemable, and plain cliche horror movie protagonist ever written  Smodcasted. He insults locals and bashes their town, he says things like “Shut the front door” while speaking 20 decibels louder than those he is talking to, and he smugly brags about the money his podcast (HIS PODCAST!) generates in yearly ad revenue. He even cheats on his supermodel girlfriend with podcast groupies (PODCAST GROUPIES!!) because fuck it, why make him likeable in any way, shape, or form? Take every Friday the 13th, punk-ass teenager you’ve ever seen, add in a dose of hipster pretentiousness right down to the “throwback” pedostache, finish it off with a touch of Billy Zabka, and you’ve got Wallace Bryton.

Of course, it’s not like his girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) is any more likeable. The scene in which she’s introduced, for instance, involves her giving Wallace what I can only assume would be a fantastic blowjob, then cutting him off halfway through it to talk about how he’s “changed.” He then belittles her for liking the old, nerdy Wallace, to which she nearly cries, shrugs, and then just goes right back to blowing him. WOMEN AND EMOTIONS AND STUFF, AMIRIGHT FELLAS? Oh, and have I mentioned that this movie wants you to believe that not only can a hot-shot podcaster with a pedostache score Genesis Rodriguez, but that Rodriguez would then cheat on him with present day Haley Joel Osment? A walrus suit made of human skin is one thing, but that is one liberty too many, Mr. Smith.

And I get it: Long’s character is supposed to be an asshole, and his ensuing torture is meant to serve as some sort of penance/punishment for the “monster” he’s become. What a profound and thrilling take on the horror genre, Mr. Smith! The only problem being that it replaces what empathy you should have for Wallace with apathy, especially when it comes to the relationship with his aforementioned smokeshow girlfriend, who is herself morally questionable at best, and the horrific torture he is put through.

Torture is usually a means through which absolution is achieved, otherwise it is just a means to the end that is sadism. While many a horror film have committed to the idea that we will identify and empathize with a character simply because they are in duress, Tusk reduces the idea of ”torture porn” to its most banal, which is really saying something. The story is actually constructed like a pornographic film, for one; there’s a scene of torture, then a scene of “plot,” then a scene of torture, and etcetera etcetera until the whole thing just kind of ends. And like a porno, the film grows increasingly tiresome after blowing its wad on the reveal of Long’s walrus suit, which happens approximately 45 minutes in. Add in some full penetration, and Tusk would have been the best movie that Dennis Reynolds never made. Even Haley Joel Osment is there to reprise his role as new Mac.

But more than everything else that’s wrong with this movie, Tusk commits the most painful offense of all in being a goddamn BORE to sit through. I could watch Michael Parks give salty-eyed recounts of his oceanic adventures with Ernest Hemingway all day, but between Tusk‘s lack of actual jokes and its constant slog between half committed attempts at establishing a tone, it makes an hour and a half feel like an eternity. Even when Tusk is flashing back to earlier moments from the film during its second and third acts, if you can call them that, whole lines of dialogue are added to those flashbacks to make up for the film’s inability to tell the most basic of stories. As such, the B-plot wherein Osment and Rodriguez attempt to track down Long unfolds like a Law and Order episode as written by a kid on the autism spectrum.

Like Smith’s previous effort, Red State, Tusk is simply too noncommittal and scatterbrained to ever reel us into what could be a compelling (albeit ridiculous) premise. After boring us to tears with an excruciatingly dull, every-horror-movie-you’ve-ever-seen setup, it simply throws a guy in a walrus suit at us and expects us to ooh and ahh because its all so wacky!! Is that Johnny Depp in a fake nose playing a private investigator with a French accent? Ooh la-la, this will never get old!

Lazy and incompetent storytelling does not equate to an original filmmaking style, and even if it did, Robert Rodriguez would have clearly claimed his place as the frontrunner of that movement. If Tusk is a movie that only Kevin Smith could make, then he might be better off selling his soul to write 20 million dollar buddy cop movies.

Grade: C-

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The Film Cult Presents: Contact http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-contact/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-contact/#comments Fri, 12 Sep 2014 15:34:22 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=264986 Based on the Carl Sagan SciFi classic of the same name, and directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forest Gump fame, Contact is the tale of Ellie Arroway, a scientist who has devoted her life to finding evidence of alien life.

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Remember when Jodie Foster was relevant? When her acting was pure and everyone related to her onscreen struggles? She used to show such range, such acting genius. And yes, I’m talking about Freaky Friday. Jokes aside, there was a time when Jodie Foster wasn’t the unofficially lesbian, ironic friend of Mel Gibson, when her craft was the gold standard. And yes, of course, as Clarice Starling in Silence of the Lambs, she was truly magnificent. In all honesty, however, I think she was better in this week’s Film Cult pick: Contact.

Based on the Carl Sagan SciFi classic of the same name, and directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forest Gump fame, Contact is the tale of Ellie Arroway, a scientist who has devoted her life to finding evidence of alien life. Not unlike Clarice Starling, Ellie is a bit of an outsider, the genius girl ready for her chance to shine. Well, Ellie gets it, damn the consequence. Not only does she find strong evidence of alien life, but said evidence is actually a blue print for a time space transporter she gets the privilege of using. When her pod falls through the building-sized, spinning three rings—man, only 2001: A Space Odyssey compares to the depiction of deep space on film.

Also thrown into the film, for spiritual conflict and terrible sexual chemistry, is the character Palmer Josh, played by none other than Mr. “all right, all right, alright” himself, Matthew McConaughey. This was when McConaughey was his most beautiful. His character is so conservative, so laced up. It’s hard not to imagine him naked. That said, Jodie’s real life sexuality seeps through the surface of her character, because their sexual tension is about as strong as mine is with my landlady’s dog. In fact, I’m more intimate with my—I’ll stop there.

This film has been the punch line of many jokes, never really getting the respect it deserves. It definitely hasn’t been canonized, and yet when talking to my nerd friends, each of them has something kind to say about this movie, how they loved it, and how they wish it was better known. I couldn’t agree more.

Ellie is facing an uphill battle. Anyone who spends their time waiting for Aliens to make a house call has to be a strong person. These people searching and searching are just another brand of outsider. Facing almost as much ridicule as Bigfoot hunters, Alien hunters rarely get any respect. They are persevered as silly, crazy folk. Yes, there’s the possibility that the green people are out there (I WANT TO BELIEVE) but no one, especially an over-educated, PhD should spend their lives waiting, listening to static out in the New Mexico desert. That said, Ellie, we get it. To chase something that may not be there, to yearn for the fantastic, is a calling. It’s a an answer to a question that only other people ask. To the person, to the devoted, there is no other option. There was never a question.

Yes, Contact, can read a little cheesy at times, but I’m alright with that. In the climax montage of Ellie’s journey through space, she sees a radio-transmission site on Vega, almost loses her compass, and falls (nauseatingly, I might add) through a few wormholes. And when she finally sees the “celestial event” about which she says they should have sent a poet, the camera zeroes in on her left eye, which to me is the most important statement of the movie.

I love how this movie takes the SciFi model and uses it as an entryway into the mind, into the self. Yes, Ellie must travel across the universe (literally) to see inside herself, to face her dead father, to come to terms with what happened to her. It’s a beautiful statement on the idea that once things become so big, they become exceptionally tiny, and vice versa. The universe contains our mind, and our mind, the universe. Through the wormhole, it’s all the same.

Trippy, pseudo-philosophies aside, Contact is a fun movie for SciFi nerds, movie buffs, or just fans of interesting storylines. Check it out if you haven’t seen it in awhile, and if you have never seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. Also, check out a pretty fierce Angela Bassett as Rachel Constantine, the White House Chief of Staff.

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The Film Cult Presents: Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-joan-rivers-a-piece-of-work/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-joan-rivers-a-piece-of-work/#comments Fri, 05 Sep 2014 16:22:35 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=264721 On August 15th, I wrote about my favorite Robin Williams film, Hook, in tribute to his untimely and heartbreaking death. If you had told me then that less than a...

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On August 15th, I wrote about my favorite Robin Williams film, Hook, in tribute to his untimely and heartbreaking death. If you had told me then that less than a month later I’d be reviewing Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work because Joan Rivers—THE Joan Rivers—would also be dead, I wouldn’t have believed you. I would’ve told have told you to go fuck yourself because Joan Rivers was going to live forever.  And yet, here I sit. It hasn’t even been twenty-four hours that she’s left us.

I knew a lot about Joan Rivers before the documentary came out. I grew up with her daytime talk show. I watched her E! fashion recaps before they became what we all now know as Fashion Police. I’m a gay man; what can I say?  Loving Joan Rivers is kinda in the description. I knew that she was funny, that she had a daughter named Melissa, and that she had been around forever. But, when my best friend and I sat down one Saturday afternoon in the Laemlle theater in Pasadena to watch A Piece of Work, I realized I knew nothing of Joan Rivers.

A Piece of Work pulls no punches. Joan commented that there’d be no reason to allow a documentary to be made if she didn’t give full access to an outside production company. An in-house made documentary would wreak of bias, invalidity, and vanity. To let an independent, no-agenda crew come into your life is a brave concession. Thank god she did it. The Joan Rivers revealed in that hour and a half is a strong, complicated, workaholic with the eye of a tiger.

Following one year in her life, the documentary captures the end of a career slump for Joan. She had no heat in the industry. Fashion Police wasn’t back. Her reality show with Melissa wasn’t on, and everyone really only saw her as a plastic surgery freak who used to be on the red carpet. Starting at the end of that slump, during which she performed in the Bronx at four-thirty in the afternoon, A Piece of Work follows her into the beginning of what would be her third act. We’re right there with her as she struggles to get an autobiographical play off the ground and fails. We feel as tired as she does at three thirty in the morning when she hobbles into a Minneapolis hotel room and tells the man at the front desk, “I don’t care if it’s god himself. No one is to call my room until 6:30.” And when she books the Comedy Central Roast and wins Celebrity Apprentice  we cheer for her just as much as her staff does.

Celebrities are not squeaky clean. This has always been true. Everyone has a different side to them. Anyone who was as successful as Joan had to work doubly, triply, hard behind the scenes to make it look effortless. But not until A Piece of Work had there been a celebrity truly brave enough to allow the public so far behind the curtain. You know it’s going to be an honest portrayal of celebrity life when the opening montage is of Joan herself getting her make up done, foundation coating the plastic mask that show business made her get to stay relevant, her eyes peering through, ready to attack.

Other celebrities have been pouring their hearts out all afternoon, with Lena Dunham winning the award for greatest commemoration. Upon news of Joan’s death, she tweeted: “That being said, Joan is gone but a piece of her lives on: her nose, because it’s made of polyurethane.” That’s Joan’s legacy. She never apologized for a joke and knew that the only way to get through something, the only way to deal with pain was to laugh about it. Once you can laugh about something–death, homophobia, racism, national tragedy, body image–you can deal with it. A Piece of Work takes this head on when she’s heckled at a rural casino gig (“Where are we? I was in the casino earlier, put money into a slot machine and fish came out.”) by a man who has taken offense by a joke she’s made about Helen Keller. After he storms out, she says, “If we didn’t laugh, where the hell would we all be?”

Well, Joan, right now I feel a little lost. In moments when I didn’t think I could get my work done, when I felt my schedule was too crazy, or when I knew I should say yes to an opportunity when I wanted so badly to say no, I just thought about you walking through airports at four thirty in the morning all to make us laugh. Knowing you’re not out there right now telling off a heckler or quietly delivering meals to an AIDS patient kinda freaks me out. Without you fighting for the truth, without you hilariously using the very stereotypes that so many others use for hate, the world feels a little scarier and a whole lot less funny.

And finally, thank you for making me laugh. When you looked and smiled at that cheap wine bottle in A Piece of Work and giggled, “May.” Or when the thought of doing the Comedy Central Roast was so awful and you said to your driver, “Mohammad, can you stop the car so I can get out in front it?” Or on your reality show when you were showing your grandson the thirteen colonies and said, “See there used to be Indians all up and down here. Now they all have casinos, and thank god, cause if they didn’t Grandma wouldn’t have a job. [beat] We wouldn’t be able to buy you two different color grapes.”

In the last few months, Elaine Stritch, Robin Williams, Lauren Bacall, and Joan Rivers have died. It’s almost too much for a gay man to deal with. But, I will deal with it because Joan wouldn’t want me to stop because she’s gone. She’d want us all to keep working, keep loving, and most definitely to keep laughing. The world is less funny without you, but I know you and Robin are making the angels piss themselves at this very moment.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Heat http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-the-heat/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-the-heat/#comments Fri, 29 Aug 2014 17:38:57 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=264587 Warning: Spoilers Ahead! I’ll admit it: I’m not the biggest Sandra Bullock fan. I find her precious nature to be cloying and often tedious. I can’t sit through any of...

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Warning: Spoilers Ahead!

I’ll admit it: I’m not the biggest Sandra Bullock fan. I find her precious nature to be cloying and often tedious. I can’t sit through any of the Miss Congeniality movies and not for a moment did I consider spending money on Gravity. I’ve nothing against her; I just don’t particularly like her movies. Except one, The Heat. And really, I only truly like this movie because Sandy is aggravated by the genius of Melissa McCarthy.

The Heat is your average formulaic buddy-cop comedy. Two strangers are forced into an unlikely partnership in order to take down a local drug lord; family gets involved; there’s a minor twist; yada yada yada. I didn’t even want to see this movie, and I definitely wasn’t going to see it in theaters. I only saw it because I had nothing to do on a Friday night (like every Friday night) and my parents had gotten it from Netflix. With no better prospects, I plopped down with them and was amazed at what I saw.

The brilliance of The Heat isn’t so much about the acting, which is great by the way, but more so about the writing. Gags in buddy-cop movies always feel like throw-aways, those stupid jokes that pock the surface of everything from Lethal Weapon to Dragnet. I was expecting these sorts of gags. Nope, these were actually funny.

Kate Dippold wrote The Heat, and I’ve decided I want to be her friend. Having written episodes for Parks and Rec, I guess it makes sense that The Heat would be a laugh a minute. And it is. Not that I timed it.

Character development in these sorts of comedies isn’t always easy, but from the jump we understand that Ashburn (played by Bullock) is an arrogant, blow-hard FBI agent. In the films first scene, she uncovers drugs and weapons when an entire team of operatives is unable to. She’s smug and no one likes her, even commenting behind her back “No wonder she’s single.” All these jokes play well. They set up who she is; they set up the possibility of future conflict. Why this scene (and the rest of the movie) is funny is due in part to the extra quips written in. After Ashburn has revealed more drugs and weapons are being stashed that meets the eye, another FBI agent looks at the sniff dug and yells, “Dick!” I’m sorry, shaming a dog for not finding illegal weapons is hilarious simply because you can’t believe that what you’re seeing is actually happening. But it is, and it just gets funnier.

Mullins, played by Melissa McCarthy, the most talented of the McCarthy family I should add, delivers some of the funniest lines with the driest delivery I’ve ever seen. When a nurse tells her she can’t use her mobile phone in a hospital she pulls a gun and says, “Oh yeah? How ‘bout now? Can I use it now?” When asked what time she’ll be returning to the station she says, “Go fuck yourself o’clock, okay?” But in true Kate Dippold fashion, the added quip, “…if there’s no traffic” just makes it all the more amazing.  When busting down a door in a drug dealers apartment only to discover an old woman on the toilet, she asks, “Who closes the door to take a shit?!” So good!

The Heat has been on the premium channels for a while, so I’ve seen it a lot recently, and whenever it’s on I cannot turn it off. It did well in the box office, but I don’t really remember that much about it when it was released. I know it more as being played on Netflix and on television almost always. Like I said before, the plot is exactly what you’d expect from the genre. That said, its popularity is beginning to grow. Tumblr is filled with gifs and screen grabs. My family and I quote lines all the time to each other: “I hope it burns your fucking dick off.” “I’m sorry I don’t have poached eggs in rubies for you to eat.” “Are you a narc?” Check out The Heat. It’s a hilarious movie you won’t regret having seen. Keep an eye out for the extraordinary secondary cast including: Jane Curtin, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Tony Hale, Kaitlin Olson, and even Joey McIntyre from New Kids on the Block, who all make memorable, hilarious appearances.

 

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The Film Cult Presents: American Gigolo http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-review/the-film-cult-presents-american-gigolo/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-review/the-film-cult-presents-american-gigolo/#comments Fri, 22 Aug 2014 16:56:10 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=264389 The Film Cult Presents: American Gigolo, the 1980 film about sex and fashion that became a cult classic for its eighties aesthetic.

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After a few weeks of overly personal, emotional Film Cult columns, I thought I’d write on just a plain old campy mess of a movie called American Gigolo. Many of the movies I write about aren’t particularly well made but have some sort of lasting resonance with a small, but devoted fan base. Well, American Gigolo is a poorly made movie that I’m not sure has any devoted fan base beyond those of us who love eighties fashion and over-the-top kitsch.

Not unlike other classic cult films, say Showgirls for instance, the film makers made American Gigolo in complete earnest. Paul Schrader wrote and directed the film and really thought it was going to be a provocative gem. You may know Schrader from his work as writer (and co-writer) of such greats as Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. American Gigolo is not among his most well made films, but it’s certainly my ironic favorite.

Let me set the scene for you. It’s early 1980 in the City of Angels. Pastels rule landscape, and money flows down Rodeo Drive like cheap rosé. Women aren’t as powerful as they will be in the following decades and therefore are forced to stay home while their power-broker husbands work in wood-paneled offices in Century City. What’s a lonely and rich woman-of-a-certain age supposed to do with her days? Macrame? That was for their mothers. Soap Operas, sure, but all those commercials for wheel chairs and panty liners. Nope, in the land of palm trees and wide streets, a wealthy older woman with nothing but time on her hands wants one thing: to fuck a hot younger guy for money. The king of those male hustlers? Julian Kaye, portrayed by the baby-faced (but man-bodied) Richard Gere.

Julian is a man of distinguished taste and many languages. He owns a black Mercedes convertible, snorts only the best cocaine, and is exclusively bedecked by Giorgio Armani. He runs a fast life, zooming up PCH or out to Palm Springs for whatever adventures his clients have planned for him. But, is his life too fast? He encounters “rough tricks”,  run-ins with drug dealers. Is he dancing to close to the edge?

The short answer is yes, he is. There’s danger everywhere he turns, from drugs to his gay pimp, with whom he’s always slightly flirting but also slightly afraid of. Of course, back in 1980, the gay community was something to be afraid of–men in leather, making out in dark clubs with chains and loud music. But the true danger Julian encounters is not the gay men whom he’s always seemingly just about to join. The real danger is Michelle Stratton, played by the eternal Lauren Hutton, with whom he’s in danger of falling in love. There’s not much to say about the plot as there isn’t really a plot. There’s a murder, some running, and some rock-bottom moments, and then of course, Michelle vouches for Julian and they finally allow themselves to be together. One doesn’t watch American Gigolo for the plot. That is, of course, if one’s getting drunk with their friends and wants a good laugh for the night. No, one watches American Gigolo for the aesthetic.

Not unlike Grey Gardens, American Gigolo is one of those cult classics that really only has a life because it so perfectly captures a specific moment in fashion. In Grey Gardens it’s the quirky, DYI fashions of Little Edie, while in American Gigolo, it’s the ultra-glam Beverly Hills set of 1980s Los Angeles. Mr. Schrader really doused American Gigolo with syrup in this respect. I know many a designer who has been influenced by this film, many men and women who cite American Gigolo as their style muse for evening looks and seasonal fashion lines.

Having Richard Gere and Lauren Hutton wear all of these fabulous clothes doesn’t hurt. Lauren Hutton was (and is) a model for all time, a beauty discovered by legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland and heralded for not fixing the gap in her teeth. She is known for her philanthropy and activism, often spending months in Africa helping those less fortunate. All of that is ignored in this film however, since Mr. Schrader has essentially turned her into a mannequin. If she were a great actress, this would be different. Alas, she’s not. She’s beautiful, knows how to carry a woven red leather clutch, and is just vulnerable enough to believe she can crack Richard Gere’s muscled shell. And let me tell you, that’s enough reason to watch the movie.

Gere and Hutton dance around each other, surrounded by a world of shoulder pads, jersey dresses, and chunky jewelry. Their chemistry is real, which I can only imagine is another reason the movie was made. Re-watching it this week, I like to believe that if the movie were remade, Julian would be played by James Franco. Both are hams, and both are hot enough to pull off the whole vaguely gay hustler thing the character demands. Who would play Michelle? Hard to say. I think Idina Menzel would be great in the part. Maybe make it a musical and really gay it up.

God bless Paul Schrader. He had no idea he was making a mess, and he didn’t learn his lesson, seeing how he was also the director of The Canyonswhich was so awful it’s now masterpiece in debacle. That said, thank god Paul Scrader made American Gigolo. It’s the perfect post card for the fashion, decadence, and insanity of early eighties Southern California.

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The Film Cult Presents: Hook http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-hook/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-hook/#comments Fri, 15 Aug 2014 16:30:57 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=264199 Like the rest of the world, I too have been mourning the untimely and tragic death of supernova comedian Robin Williams. My Facebook newsfeed has been blossoming with tributes, some...

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Like the rest of the world, I too have been mourning the untimely and tragic death of supernova comedian Robin Williams. My Facebook newsfeed has been blossoming with tributes, some annoying, others delightful. As the week comes to an end, I’ve found myself remembering more and more of his work, the breadth of his career mushrooming in my mind. I’ve written about Robin before in this column, most recently for his beautiful work in the quirky 90s film, Toys. I also briefly mentioned him in my review of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen as the detachable-headed King of the Moon, a role for which he was not credited and yet stole the show. There are many movies I could write about today: Jumanji, One Hour Photo, Patch Adams, or Death to Smoochy. None of these films became true classics in their genre, and yet all of them are memorable because of him. But, today I’m going to write about my favorite Robin Williams film: Hook.

The Peter Pan story had been told a multitude of times prior to the making of Hook. There had been live-action films, the Disney animated classic, stage productions, and even television specials. Was that reason it didn’t do well financially? Why Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 32%? Its critics sight an overabundance of sentiment and schlock. You know what I say to those critics? Who the hell cares? Hook is a brilliant film. Yes, it’s syrupy at times, but only in the best, most memorable ways possible. The greater themes of the movie—courage, self-discovery, the importance of family—all rise above any and all overly-sentimental traps throughout the film. And the only reason the film works, the only reason we can look past all that cloying storytelling, is Robin Williams.

As Peter, the overworked father being forced to holiday in England with his rambunctious family, Robin puts his inner demons to work. We see the darkness under the clown. He is angry and lashes out as his wife and children. On his face, from one moment to the next, can be seen rage, guilt, and disappointment, each expertly expressed by an acting master. He’s so convincing as the angry father that the transformation he’s about to undertake is even that much more powerful.

Once in London, he and his family stay with Wendy, the woman who raised him from childhood. Wendy is portrayed by the eternal Maggie Smith. Her fragile strength is disarming. When she tells Peter the truth of his identity, their chemistry is crackling. And why does she tell him who he really is? Well, Captain Hook (played by Dustin Hoffman) has kidnapped Peter’s children and demands Peter go back to Neverland to rescue them.

What follows is the journey we all must take. As an adult, Peter has forgotten who he is. He no longer sees the joy and fun in life, having forgotten how to play and use his imagination. Upon returning to Neverland, Peter becomes the classic skeptic, disbelieving everything. Having been ruled by a kid named Rufio since he left, the Lost Boys have been running wild without leadership, hoping that Peter would someday return. When he does, they can’t really believe it. In the movies first truly heart-wrenching scene, only one boy believes Peter is truly Peter Pan. He makes Peter kneel down and starts rubbing his face, searching for some proof that the ageing, stressed-out man before them is the great Peter Pan.

 

 

Sometimes, it takes the wisdom of an innocent heart to see who we truly are. As adults, we pour ourselves into our own children, our relationships, our jobs. But who are we? Did we forget how to play or what used to bring us joy? Let the child in you search your tired, caffeinated face for the eternal youth within. Robin is so vulnerable in this scene, allowing the young actor to reach into his soul. I often think the reason this film never did as well as it should have was because so many of us are discomforted by the idea of looking that closely at ourselves. Maybe what we’re witnessing in the above scene is too raw, too real for the average bro or chick to handle.

One of the other truly powerful scenes in Hook is the dinner scene. Once Peter has begun his training, he is exhausted. Swinging around trees isn’t as easy as it used to be. He sits down, ready for a huge meal, only to discover there’s no food in the steaming pots. It takes a game of insulting one another, of believing, to make the food appear.

 

 

These two scenes embody the theme of self-discovery in Hook. They show us that belief reminds us of who we truly are. And its this discovery that allows Peter the strength and courage to face his fears and rescue his children.

As we all now know, Robin wasn’t able to rescue himself. Perhaps he forgot the lessons Hook taught us all. Perhaps he forgot that in another world he would never age and adventure would always be just over the next hill. Maybe that’s where he went. I don’t know what demons possessed Robin, but I can tell you that even though they took his life, they have not won. As the fans have shown us in the last week, all of us still believe. Robin may have stopped believing in himself, but we will never stop believing in him.

When he finally takes ownership of whom he truly is, nothing can stop Peter from rescuing his children. He fights hook and wins. He delegates power and leaves the Lost Boys in able, kind hands. Still an adult, yet always a child, once the day is saved, he knows he must go back to the real world. He has a life there, a family and a job. But, after his adventures in Neverland, he is not the same. He is a man filled with love and hope, magic and belief. This is when we get to see Robin at his most energetic, crawling into Nana’s doghouse, making snow angels, and jumping onto window ledges. The family reunited, the film ends with Uncle Tootles flying around Big Ben.

Each of us has our own journey to take, our own revelations and self-discoveries to unearth. Let Hook be your starting and ending point for this journey. Let the magic of Robin’s acting show you how to feel. Let it allow you the space to cry and laugh, jump and play. Let the genius Robin Williams left behind remind you that even though we’ve all lost a friend, we still have his work, and that all it takes is one happy thought to fly.

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Throwback Thursday: 9 of the Most Scathing Siskel & Ebert Reviews From the ’90s http://www.screenjunkies.com/video/throwback-thursday-9-of-the-most-scathing-siskel-ebert-reviews-from-the-90s/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/video/throwback-thursday-9-of-the-most-scathing-siskel-ebert-reviews-from-the-90s/#comments Thu, 14 Aug 2014 20:23:20 +0000 Jared Jones http://www.screenjunkies.com/?post_type=video&p=264164 Back before movie reviews could be summed up in 13 characters or less, there were two gentleman who stood atop the peak of film criticism. Simply put, *no one* could rip a movie a new a-hole like Siskel and Ebert.

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(Four thumbs up still doesn’t even begin to describe the greatness of Suburban Commando.)

By Jared Jones

Back before movie reviews could be summed up in 13 characters or less, there were two gentleman who stood atop the peak of film criticism. Their names were Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, and from 1986 to 1999, they hosted Siskel & Ebert & the Movies, a highly popular movie review show wherein the two would debate the week’s best and worst offerings from Hollywood. It was basically Statler and Waldorf with two slightly less cantankerous hosts.

Arguably the most entertaining episodes of Siskel & Ebert came at year’s end, when they would name their best and worst films of the year. While their breakdowns of the best were witty and insightful in their own right, it was their cathartic lampooning of the worst that are remembered to this day. Simply put, no one could rip a movie a new a-hole like Siskel and Ebert.

Unfortunately, both legendary critics have since passed away, Siskel due to complications from a surgery and Ebert from thyroid cancer. But rather than continue to wallow in the absolutely wretched week of news this has been, we shall instead celebrate Siskel and Ebert by taking a look back at some of their most vicious takedowns from the ’90s. Enjoy.

The Guardian (1990)

(Scroll to the 16:56 mark)

Choice Quote: “You know you have a special job when your little children ask you, ‘What did you do today, Daddy?’ and you tell them, ‘Oh, honey, I saw a movie about a killer tree.’”

Drop Dead Fred (1991)

Choice Quote: “98 minutes stolen from my life.”

Stop! or My Mom Will Shoot (1992)

Choice Quote: “If this script had been submitted to the half-hour show, The Golden Girls, they would have rejected it for not being substantial enough for a 22 or 24-minute TV show.”

The Beverly Hillbillies (1993)

Choice Quote: (From Ebert’s review) “Here is a film with all of the wit of the road kill that supplies not one but two of the lesser jokes.”

North (1994)

Choice Quote: “I hated this movie as much as any movie we’ve ever reviewed in the 19 years we’ve been doing this show.”

Judge Dredd (1995)

Choice Quote: “I know, Stallone, you probably hate my guts, you think I hate you. I don’t hate you. I like your talent. I want you to use it. This isn’t what you were put on Earth for. You can do this in your sleep, and sometimes, it looks like that’s exactly what you’re doing.”

Little Indian, Big City (1996)

Choice Quote: “If the French laughed at this, it makes me understand why they think Jerry Lewis is the funniest man on Earth.”

Year of the Horse (1997)

Choice Quote: “The documentary segments have all the depth of some kid interviewing his family members in the basement with a home video camera. And as for the musical segments, they remind me of nothing more than a group of shaggy mountain men hunkering in a circle and doing imitations of autistic lumberjacks.”

Spice World (1998)

Choice Quote: “When the movie was over, I still didn’t know the Spice Girls by name, which is OK because I don’t know the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles by name either. So I thought, maybe there could be a movie where the Spice Girls and the Ninja Turtles fall in love, run off together, and never come back.”

For more ’90s nostalgia, enter the Throw Break Thursday sweepstakes for a chance to win a retro arcade tower, a classic gaming console & games, or a vintage comic book pack. It ends Friday, so hurry!

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The Film Cult Presents: Go http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-go/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-go/#comments Sun, 10 Aug 2014 18:32:56 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=263980 Warning! Spoilers Ahead! In the spring of 1999, just before I graduated from high school, I met a young man named Zoe. He was a few years older and, I...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

In the spring of 1999, just before I graduated from high school, I met a young man named Zoe. He was a few years older and, I thought, far worldlier than I. We met on a now defunct chat room late one night after my parents had gone to bed. I fell instantly in love with him and a few weeks later he took a bus into Hollywood one morning so we could meet. He had a black eye and over the course of that day he stole my watch, confessed that he lived in some detention camp for wayward youth, and told me he loved me. He’d told the authorities that he was going to his grandmother’s funeral. As an innocent kid from the LA burbs, all of this seemed terribly attractive and exciting to me. I lived with my parents in Glendale, where there was always fresh watermelon, newspapers, and plenty of protection.

Because of his lie to the authorities, Zoe was kicked out of his living situation and went to live with a friend who had a mobile home out in Yucaipa. The last time we spoke, after my parents’ banned me from seeing him, was on the phone one night after he’d gotten high with his friend, had sex with said friend, and called to tell me that he wanted me to see a movie called “Go.” He said this movie was exactly the kind of life he wanted us to live together—running wild, going to raves, taking drugs. As he spoke of this movie, of how much it meant to him, I realized that we would never be together. After all, I wasn’t even eighteen, and something about “Go” felt dangerous, like it had unleashed a devil in him from which I quickly withdrew.

I never saw Zoe again. I graduated from high school and went to community college. After Y2K failed to bring the melodrama it had promised, I became bored with life, caring nothing for my own future, giving no time to the venture of self. Then, one Saturday afternoon, my brother rented “Go” from Blockbuster.

“Go” is three interweaving story lines of multiple young people on the verge of danger at the end of the twentieth century. A girl tries to scam a drug dealer. A traveling Brit tries to outsmart a pimp, and two gay guys try to escape a pyramid scheme. The jokes are fast, not particularly smart, but always sarcastic, which resonated with me instantly. The plot is all right. It’s not brilliant, but it’s entertaining. The cast is phenomenal. Scott Wolf, Timothy Olyphant, Taye Diggs, Jay Mohr, and even Katie Holmes, each play major roles throughout. In fact, Wolf and Mohr are the aforementioned gay couple. It’s fascinating to watch each of these now mega-famous actors cut their teeth in a quirky film about a rave and drugs. Katie Holmes was still wholesome, while Timothy Olyphant made the perfect skeezy drug dealer who was equal parts hot and hilarious. Also, keep your eyes akimbo for a then unknown Melissa McCarthy toward the film’s end.

My brother and I loved it. We integrated quotes into our daily vernacular almost immediately: “Don’t go all 818 on me.” “I don’t even give my friends head.” “Look at your shirt, bitch. This ain’t Hawaii.” I saw what Zoe had loved about the film. None of the young characters appear to have parents. They all have cars and clothes and schedules fit for middle-aged, full-time workers. They were all pretending to be adults, not realizing that pretending to be something you’re not always turns out bad. Zoe wanted his life to be a movie in which beautiful teens are hit by cars and don’t die, in which your friends are always available to get high and go on adventures. As you can imagine, his life was not this. He was doing drugs in a mobile home out in the desert.

I knew my life wasn’t like the characters’ in “Go.” Hell, my life wasn’t even like Zoe’s. I didn’t do drugs and until then only ever did anything as dangerous as meet strangers off the internet, which, granted, was dangerous enough. Still, I knew that the characters in “Go” were still the cool kids in high school. That is, not me, which I’d grown to accept years earlier. Still, I wanted a taste of that life. The danger from which I’d originally detracted now seemed exciting to me.

Over the years, “Go” has actually become a family favorite. We watch it at least twice a year, each family member delighting in their own contained excitement of vicariously living a fictional character’s story arch. The jokes seem less funny, but the actors are all still beautiful, especially Timothy Olyphant who is shirtless throughout. I wonder if my family members ever wonder what their lives could have been had they gone on more dangerous adventures. To me, now a man in my thirties, “Go” seems almost innocent in its depiction of pre-2000 debauchery. Everyone thought the internet was going to take us to different worlds, never once thinking that it would eventually just make the world smaller. Justin Bieber was a six-year-old living in Canada. Facebook didn’t exist.

When my family now suggests we watch “Go” I always have to convince myself to watch it with them. I recently realized that the comfort of living vicariously through a character’s life is not something I need. In the years following my initial viewing of “Go”, I flew to Chicago to meet another man I met on the internet, spending a weekend with him in his dorm room and subsequently cheating on my boyfriend back in Los Angeles. I did the same a year later, this time going to a rave in San Francisco with a stranger, only to be stranded in a Sacramento parking lot at five the next morning. That same year, when I was nineteen, I popped a blood vessel in my right eye during a long weekend in Las Vegas. I shortly after dropped out of community college and soon found myself in Hollywood apartments at three in the morning with strangers, frequently allowing myself to dance in West Hollywood clubs until I was so dehydrated that I had to make out with bartenders for free bottles of water.

No, “Go” is not a way for me to live something I never got the chance to. “Go” is a reminder of the innocent kid I was and how that kid, because of a black-eyed druggie named Zoe, learned to never let any of my crazy, and sometimes idiotic, adventures go too far. For when I thought I might be in too much danger, when that devil would appear, I could hear Jay Mohr whisper a single word in my ear.   

 

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Review: ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-review/review-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-review/review-teenage-mutant-ninja-turtles/#comments Thu, 07 Aug 2014 15:00:38 +0000 bgoldstein http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=263852 Despite all the fanboy hand-wringing, TMNT is not the childhood-defiling catastrophe that so many people predicted it would be. It’s also not a very good movie.

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By Dan Murrell

The Ninja Turtles franchise reminds me of my old high school: it’s very close to my heart and I had a lot of fun with it when I was young, but clinging to it would be a discouraging sign that I’m still living in the past.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles seeks to update the franchise for a new generation, and it succeeds, in that it’s the same loud, dumb action film that we’ve come to expect from summer blockbusters. This film marks the first time that the Turtles have been on-screen in a live-action feature in over 20 years. While the three previous live-action films hold sentimental value to a generation of adults, the truth of the matter is that they aren’t very good. Some things never change.

I would say that the origin of the Ninja Turtles needs no explanation, but this film disagrees with me, as it spends a good chunk of its first hour retelling how our heroes came to be. I will give the movie credit for taking the story in a new direction. It’s a head-scratching new direction, but at least it’s original. It also adheres to Article 1 of the Modern Law of Reboots, which states that every character has to have known each other for their entire lives. At this point, I’m expecting Batman v Superman to open with a young Bruce Wayne cradling his dead parents’ bodies under the wreckage of baby Kal-El’s crashed spaceship.

The rest of the plot swings wildly between overly simplistic and needlessly complicated. I pine for the days when radioactive goo falling into a sewer grate passed as an acceptable superhero origin. It mainly boils down to the Turtles versus the Shredder, who may or may not be played by William Fichtner, who may or may not be a bad guy pretending to be good. The marketing has decided to be coy about it, so I’ll play along.

One plot point that does surface, for the second time this summer, is the villain’s quest for the heroes’ blood and the substances within. This is the third blockbuster movie in two years (after Star Trek Into Darkness and The Amazing Spider-Man 2) to use magic blood as a McGuffin, making it the strangest Hollywood trend since the rise of Liam Neeson as an action star. It does, however, lead to my favorite line in the movie: “I want you to drain every ounce of their blood. Even if it kills them.” I’m no molecular biologist, but I’ll go ahead and say that, yes, draining every ounce of any living being’s blood would definitely kill it.

Shockingly, the thing the film gets absolutely right is also the thing it has been most criticized for: the Turtles themselves. Despite the uproar over their new design (and they do still look slightly creepy), I bought these Ninja Turtles as a fun band of brothers out to do good. The voice work is solid, though Alan Ritchson’s Raphael sounds like a guy doing a bad Mark Wahlberg impression — much like Mark Wahlberg himself in Transformers: Age of Extinction. The biggest misstep is the casting of Tony Shalhoub as Splinter. Shalhoub is a fine actor, but his soft tones just don’t sound right coming out of a five-foot-tall anthropomorphized rat. When the action kicks in, though, the characters really shine and I felt some of that old magic kick back in.

The human side of the movie is more of a mixed bag. Megan Fox dominates the movie’s running time as April O’Neil, giving the exact performance that we’ve all come to expect from her. I think we’ve seen all the shades of Megan Fox that we’re going to see at this point. Will Arnett, as April’s cameraman Vern, is on-hand for comic relief, which succeeds mainly because Will Arnett is an inherently funny person. Abby Elliott gets a couple of nice moments as April’s roommate. William Fichtner does the best he can do with the character he’s given, though he often has to do the film’s heavy-lifting with a bunch of ridiculous exposition. And the rest of the actors, including Whoopi Goldberg and Taran Killam, are on-screen briefly in roles that could generously be described as thankless.

Despite all the fanboy hand-wringing, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is not the childhood-defiling catastrophe that so many people predicted it would be. It’s also not a very good movie. It’s too dumb, too underwritten and too uneven to call a success. It’s certainly not meant for the adults who grew up with the Turtles; even the callbacks to the original series seem forced and halfhearted. I’m also not sure it will land with kids, who might find the first hour too dark and tedious. But if the movie does succeed, it has laid the groundwork for what could be a fun series of movies with this group of Turtles. With the right story and the right balance of action and humor, I could see a sequel to this film being a lot of fun; and, much like my old high school, I might find myself dropping by for a little while to enjoy the memories.

Grade: C-

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The Film Cult Presents: Cookie’s Fortune http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-cookies-fortune/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-cookies-fortune/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 21:04:26 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=263680 Cookie’s Fortune was not a financial success, making just shy of one percent profit, and ask most people if they’ve seen it, they’ll probably reply in the negative. And yet, it’s a perfect film.

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Here at The Film Cult I often review movies that happen to be personal favorites but for some artistic or technical reasons they aren’t actually very good. Cookie’s Fortune was not a financial success, making just shy of one percent profit, and ask most people if they’ve seen it, they’ll probably reply in the negative. And yet, it’s a perfect film. I recently reviewed Elizabethtown, another film about family in the south, and while I love that movie, it has a lot wrong with it. No such wrongs exist in Cookie’s Fortune.

The plot revolves around the death of Cookie, a family matriarch who, in the late twilight of her life, is beginning to forget things and spends most of her time thinking about her passed-on husband. She lives in a tiny town with quirky family members circling her all the time. Her trusty comrade is Willis, who ends up being the wrongly accused suspect of his dear friend’s death.

Cookie’s Fortune takes its time. The filmmakers introduce the slow pace of the Mississippi lifestyle gradually, carefully, ensuring that by the time the action starts you’re fully steeped in the culture: Beautiful women sing the blues. The local sheriffs fish together. The children play in the street and trains slither through heavy heat. Wide shots of the river or aerial shots of the town’s single traffic light linger just enough for you to relax, for your shoulders to drop.

The action itself is gradual with cautiously revealed characters and relationships. If the actors weren’t so talented, this gradual development might come off as tedious, but with Charles S. Dutton and Glen Close leading the pack, there’s no fear in boredom.

The light touch and comedic tone that warms the entire film plays as perfect counter balance to the gruesome aspects of the film’s central crime, the death of Cookie. The locals involved in the death are each quirkier than the rest, with Julianne Moore providing the most quirk in one of her most underrated roles. Her graduation to confident self-respect by the end of the film is one of the many delights the film has to offer.

The ensemble cast, cobbled together by director Robert Altman, works so wonderfully together that you forget Liv Tyler is Stephen Tyler’s daughter or that Lyle Lovett used to be married to Julia Roberts. They in habit their characters and deliver their lines with one hundred percent commitment, making the absurdity of some of the gags feel like high art.

From the moment of Cookie’s death, the audience knows who the killer is, and watching this cuckoo salad of suspects and family members try to figure out the mystery is a Shakespearean comedy of errors. You have the police, then the family, and then of course the other townspeople who just want to make sure everything will be sorted out by the Easter pageant. The plot in Cookie’s Fortune is a loose fitting garment perfect for that late spring heat. Like the rest of the film, it takes its time until the last moment when it all comes together and everything makes sense, sort of. The true killer is never found, but of course, what does happen is so much more delicious. Almost as delicious as catfish enchiladas.

Cookie’s Fortune didn’t change anyone’s lives. It didn’t stop the presses nor win any awards.  It’s a movie about family’s and pride, towns and their people. What a family doesn’t need is a scandal, but what you need is to see this film.

 

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Review: ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ http://www.screenjunkies.com/video/review-guardians-of-the-galaxy/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/video/review-guardians-of-the-galaxy/#comments Fri, 01 Aug 2014 16:42:24 +0000 Jared Jones http://www.screenjunkies.com/?post_type=video&p=263643 Guardians of the Galaxy can best be described as a two-hour montage set to a 1970's Jock Jams mixtape (and that's a good thing).

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By Jared Jones

It’s rather fitting that Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy would be the first film I’d review for Screen Junkies, as it’s a movie that seems damn near impossible to critique. Sure, Guardians adheres to many of the conventions we’ve come to expect from a comic book movie (dead parents, cryptically-introduced characters who speak entirely in exposition, etc.), and betrays most of its plot conventions before they are even established, but its absolute refusal to take itself seriously doesn’t exactly open the door for criticism.

Of course, then you see a wisecracking racoon unleash a barrage of machine gun fire while riding on the back of a talking treebeast, and you nearly pass out from the deluge of blood that rushes from your head to your nerd boner.

Guardians of the Galaxy can best be described as a two-hour montage set to a 1970′s Jock Jams mixtape, complete with some of the most intense and plain beautiful CGI your puny eyes may ever gaze upon. It’s the kind of movie Pete Hammond would describe as an “uproarious, fun-filled thrill ride!” while sucking on the taint of whatever PR firm had hired him to write it. For once, his blatant hyperbole would be accurate.

The story is a rather familiar one in terms of comic book adaptations: Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) is abducted by a gang of intergalactic mercenaries (led by the always delightful Michael Rooker) after watching his mother succumb to cancer, and twenty some-odd years later, he is roaming the galaxy as a common, if wickedly inventive thief. That is, until he stumbles upon the Infinity Stone capable of destroying entire civilizations (DUN-DUN-DUN!) and is forced to band together with a crew of misfits and miscreants in order to save the galaxy. Yadda yadda yadda hijinks ensue.

But yes, back to the CGI. As someone who has always preferred his world-building to take place in our actual world, even I must admit that Guardians was able to create the kind of exceptionally detailed, fully realized CGI-scapes that make paying the extra $10 for 3D glasses worth it. Not that I have to, being a fancy film critic that I am now and all (*spins bow tie*). The post-opening credits scene, which sees Quill a.k.a “Star Lord” shimmy his way across a barren planet to steal the Casket of Ancient Winters/Tesseract/whatever, was the highlight for me in that regard. The whole sequence plays out like a steampunk take on the 1912 Utah opening from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and if you can’t get into that, the door is right over there.

That said, the inevitable success of Guardians will ultimately (and rightfully) be attributed to its cast and the witty repartee they develop. Marvel movies — and really, any comic book adaptation — only shine when they opt for the absurdist route, in my opinion, and director James Gunn‘s script never once pauses to talk about “destiny” or “fate” or whatever hackneyed cliches often punctuate comic book faire. A gravel-voiced Christian Bale speaking in platitudes about the moral weight that comes with being a cape-wearing crime fighter? I fart in your general direction, sir. A gravel-voiced Dave Bautista discussing his inability to understand metaphor? I’ll take two, please.

*Every* character in Guardians is the comic relief, Zoe Saldana‘s somewhat flat Gamora excluded, and that’s what makes the movie such a fun, effortless experience to watch. That, and the breakneck pace at which the film itself moves, because good God, does this flick hustle information past you like an irritated flight attendant on a frat bro-filled plane to Spring Break, Cancun. But on top of it all, Guardians of the Galaxy is just funny, plain and simple. Who would’ve guessed that a WWE star not named The Rock has legitimate comedic timing, or that Vin Diesel repeating the same line of dialogue over and over and over again would never not be hilarious? Spoiler alert: Bautista kills it, and I want a baby Groot-sized potted plant on my desk ASAP.

If I could lob one legitimate criticism at Guardians, it would be that of its villains. As I’ve noticed in more and more blockbuster action movies to come out in recent years, Guardians in the Galaxy would like you to believe that its bad guys — mainly, the Vader-esque Ronan — are all-powerful, menacing, genocidal killers, yet it never really commits to that narrative or establishes what exactly is motivating them (other than the classic standby of “world destruction”). Ronan and his cronies are merely blips on the radar who pop up when needed to cause a little mayhem, but they never really give the impression that they possess the destructive power that warrants the fear they instill.

Guardians’ PG-13 rating is most likely to blame for the movie’s lack of any real stakes or sense of impending doom, and I guess that’s forgivable. But just once, I’d like to see a quote unquote “popcorn flick” have the balls to actually commit to decisions it makes. If you’re going to kill off a character, kill off a character. If you’re going to have one character betray another, maybe establish a relationship between the two that last more than 30 seconds to give said betrayal some actual gravitas.

It’s a minor complaint in an otherwise glowing review, but something Marvel should maybe consider when developing Guardians of the Galaxy 2-8. Oh, did you not know that this movie is going to a box office juggernaut greenlit for a sequel by night’s end? Or that Chris Pratt is probably the next king of the box office? Because yeah, that’s all about to happen.

Grade: B+

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The Film Cult Presents: Toys http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-toys/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-toys/#comments Fri, 25 Jul 2014 17:15:02 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=263414 Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Toys didn’t get a fair shake. I saw it in the theater when I was a teenager, and the visual effects mesmerized me. It was a Magritte...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Toys didn’t get a fair shake. I saw it in the theater when I was a teenager, and the visual effects mesmerized me. It was a Magritte painting come to life. I never understood why I didn’t do well, especially with such a phenomenal cast. Toys was one of those movies that just didn’t click with audiences. Not only was it a flop at the box office, it was nominated for a Razzie, which by the way, it didn’t win.

Starring Robin Williams, Robin Wright, and LL Cool J, Toys tells the story of the Zevo family, which owns and operates the Zevo Toy Factory. The patriarch, who is about to die, decides to give the company to his brother, who in turn wants to start creating war toys, which his nephew Leslie (Robin Williams) thinks is a bad idea. One is inclined to agree with Leslie, seeing how introducing war toys into the magical world being almost literally painted before one’s eyes would be a travesty to the abounding magic. A family drama ensues, things get pretty dark, and then everything turns out okay.

One of the reasons the movie didn’t do well was because of its marketing. I really need to have a talk with marketing departments. I get that they are trying to attract the largest audience, the most money. “We gotta make our money back,” and all that, but come on. Don’t try to sell me a kid’s movie when what you’ve actually got is an art-house film swarming with surrealist imagery and sounds. I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that marketing departments are among the biggest (and most useless, yet necessary, if you can wrap your head around that) headaches in the film industry.

Toys was marketed as a children’s film, a film filled with fun characters, happy music, and beautiful cinematography. They couldn’t have gotten it more wrong. Toys is far from a children’s film. I’m not even sure it’s a film for grownups. Like so many of the films I write about, it’s for the displaced person who doesn’t want to leave the comfortable world they’ve come to know because they know the outside world is dangerous. Toys is for the outsider, that person who didn’t want to play war games with the other children, who instead wanted to create their own worlds by looking at the clouds, pondering the universe around them, and spinning through their imagination. They didn’t want to kill; they wanted to create.

Toys takes the imagination of these kinds of minds and puts it on film. The message is beautiful, and the acting is great. It’s a shame this film didn’t get more of an audience because it should be a classic. To me, and many others from the comments I see on Youtube and other media outlets, it is and will always be a classic.

One of the stunning aspects of the film is also the music, which in part may have had something to do with the film’s failure. Hans Zimmer and Trevor Horn did the music, and while beautiful and serene, there’s a sense of danger and distance to it. It’s sort of like when your in an airport in Belgium and you hear synth music pumping the background. Your jet-lagged; everything is beautiful, and some perfectly composed music the likes of which you’ve never heard of before seems to be following you around. It’s beautiful; but it’s different. And for American audiences in 1992, it may have been too different. You’d be hard pressed to find a copy of the soundtrack now, but listening to some songs on Youtube this week, I realized how ahead of their time they really were, and how stunning they sound now. It’s the same sound that Trevor Horn would later bring to Tina Turner’s album Wildest Dreams, which he produced the entirety of in 1995.

Tina Turner aside, Toys is a dark, broody meditation on the trappings of childhood. It’s the sort of film that questions the very notion of growing up. Who says one must leave the fantasy and toys behind? Grown ups in this film are marked as the kind of people who want to kill. That’s the message, that if you decide to grow up, you want to play at killing things. Who wants that? The alternative in Toys is to stay imagining, to stay alive through the magic of the imagination. Sadly, in this world where men and women who hold on to the child-like wonder of life (including the toys that accompany it) are labeled as weird, so much so that a movie that celebrates leaving open of the jeweled gates of childhood imaginings was thought too out there to be worth spending money on. Watch Toys again, groove to Trevor’s synths, and let your imagination out of the gate.

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The Film Cult Presents: Elizabethtown http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-elizabethtown/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-elizabethtown/#comments Fri, 18 Jul 2014 16:10:50 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=263157 Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Five movies after the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played eternally-fare, arrow-wielding Legolas, Orlando Bloom teamed up with Cameron Crowe to...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Five movies after the last of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played eternally-fare, arrow-wielding Legolas, Orlando Bloom teamed up with Cameron Crowe to make a movie steeped in sentimentality, forced “moments”, and a pretentious soundtrack. Kristen Dunst looks like she’s competing for hipster of the decade, and I am not even really sure why Paula Deen is among the cast. That said, Orlando’s American accent not withstanding, Elizabethtown is one of those movies that never got a fair chance. Yes, everything I said is true, but Elizabethtown is one of those movies I can’t shake, and ever time I bring it up to someone who has seen it, they can’t help but gush about how much they love it. How can a movie so obviously flawed be so good?

The plot of the movie is pretty straightforward. Orlando plays Drew Baylor, a business and marketing genius about to launch a shoe that will change the world of covered feet. On the release of his grand invention, he discovers the product is a dismal failure which will lose his company over 900 million dollars. Later that night, his girlfriend dumps him, and just as he’s about to commit suicide, he gets a phone call from his sister telling him his father has died. He’s then asked to take his father’s favorite blue shirt to Elizabethtown, Kentucky for the funeral.

We never meet Drew’s father. We never see them together, and when the father appears in flashbacks or family photos, he’s so unfamiliar that one doesn’t really feel anything for him. A movie maker of Cameron Crowe’s caliber knows what he’s doing, however. The emotional thread of the film is that Drew, because of the flop of his multi-million-dollar shoe, can’t process his father’s death. He’s numb and can’t cry over the fact that his father has died. In this, Drew’s numbness mirrors the viewer’s apathy toward to the father character. I’m not sure that once Drew releases his emotions during the road trip that punctuates the film’s end is enough for us to have the same reaction, but I definitely shed a tear every time I see that moment, which we’ll get to in second.

On his way to Kentucky, Drew meets Claire Colburn, played by Kristen Dunst. Her over-familiar, bubbly hipster schtick is overwrought and borders on tedious throughout the whole film. In fact, I credit her strange character, and the subsequent relationship she has with Drew, with overshadowing the rest of the film as bad. Herein is the movie’s largest flaw. It’s marketed as a romantic comedy, when really it’s about acceptance and grief. Ignoring the banal relationship these two troubled, yet beautiful, people undergo is the best way to watch Elizabethtown. The relationship aside, there are some truly poignant moments in the film.

In Elizabethtown, Drew is reunited with the Southern family he’s never known. These are the first of the more poignant moments the film offers. There’s nothing quite as special as being welcomed by a group of people who love you and are related to you for no other reason than you are family. The montage of him being introduced to his family and friends in that big southern house reminds one of being a child, surrounded by all the adults I naturally took for granted but were gone too soon. You can almost smell the food and hear the gossip and television in the background.

The other poignant moment is the one I mentioned earlier, when Drew finally succumbs to the emotions of his father’s death while on the road trip Claire has constructed for his return to the west coast. With his father’s ashes seat-belted beside him, Drew takes his father on the road trip they never had, scattering his ashes at some of the country’s most important landmarks. The moments at the landmarks are cheesy, but the solo car moments are beautiful. It’s those moments in the car, those deep revelations only found on long car trips with oneself that bring Drew, and me, to tears. You can see Drew’s mind working through the past, letting things go, and yet despite the shoe debacle, the new girl with whom he’s about to reunite, and the huge family he just rediscovered, it’s when he’s by himself that he remembers a single moment playing with his father as a child. We see a young drew pumping his hand up and down, his father doing the same, and then we cut to adult Drew in the car, finally facing responsibility, doing the same gesture, crying his heart out.

Along with a few moments of pure comedy—Susan Sarandon’s eulogy and tap dance routine, the other guests at Drew’s hotel, and Alec Baldwin’s cameo—these aforementioned poignant moments make this movie a personal favorite and an un-heralded cult film. If you’ve never taken a road trip with your dad, if you’ve never allowed yourself to be swallowed by your family, you should watch this movie. And if none of those things sound appealing to you, you should watch it merely for the fact that Orlando Bloom is so beautiful in regular, non-elf clothing, that it’s almost uncomfortable to behold. Almost.

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The Film Cult Presents: Gosford Park http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-gosford-park/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-gosford-park/#comments Fri, 13 Jun 2014 17:35:28 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=262255 Warning! Mild Spoilers Ahead! Before he gave the world Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes made a brilliant film that could very easily be considered the little brother of Downton. One could...

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Warning! Mild Spoilers Ahead!

Before he gave the world Downton Abbey, Julian Fellowes made a brilliant film that could very easily be considered the little brother of Downton. One could even call it, just as Miami Rhapsody is to Sex and the City, a film prototype of the television series to come. Filled with quick wit, pomp and circumstance, and Maggie Smith’s piercing looks, Gosford Park is a cozy romp into British peerage. Now, sure, the mansion in Gosford is nothing compared to Highclere Castle, the home of Downton. That said, Wrothman Park, where the exteriors of Gosford and a few other scenes were shot, is an admirable facade, giving great respect to the classes of guests that converge under its roofs for a weekend of shooting, bridge, and, because we’re in a giant mansion in the thirties, murder.

Which brings us to cast. Gosford Park is a glittering assemblage of Britain’s greatest stars, including Helen Mirren, Kristen Scott Thomas, and Richard Harris who would go on to play Professor Dumbledore in five of the Harry Potter movies alongside Dame Maggie Smith, also in Gosford Park . When it comes to secondary cast, we’ve got an adorable Ryan Phillippe, Emily Watson and Charles Dance, who American audiences now know as Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones. So often, British stars are used to make characters in an American blockbusters evocative, making Gosford Park a joy to watch, as all these greats don’t have to deal with silly costumes or synching with CGI magic. All they have to do is act, and in this film they act like there’s no tomorrow. Also keep a lookout for a young Clive Owen smouldering below stairs.

Julian Fellowes is a genius. He has such a sense of timing, of nuance. Wielding this amount of characters, as he also does in Downton Abbey, is daunting just to watch. I can’t imagine writing them all and keeping track of their storylines. And yet, Mr. Fellowes manages with great ease. From the the most common of chamber maids to the master of the house each character is drawn with such attention and warmth that every player feels necessary, not a single wasted character in the bunch.

The story, like any aristocratic bunch of blue bloods, is twisted and at times cumbersome. Much is played off screen, leaving the viewer to figure out for themselves that Charles Dance and Richard Harris are brothers in the film. But those ambiguous facts make the viewing of this film all the more enjoyable. Beyond the core mystery of who killed the head of the house and why, is the mystery of how everyone is related. The movie culminates in an unexpected reveal that comes after what the viewer thinks is the climax. It’s a joy for attentive movie goers, over-thinkers, and film nuts.

The attention to detail is as perfect as expected. Not a napkin or diamond is out of place, madam’s hot chocolate waiting for her just as she’s about to go to bed. Even the dropping of a Bloody Mary on muddy cement (and its almost instantaneous cleaning) is done with such panache one can’t help but read something of the doomed fate of the English gentry in all that red and brown liquid mixing together among the broken glass.

Gosford Park makes life in the English countryside look just as glamorous as it was awful. Shared bathrooms, washing clothes in a basin, and nearly getting shot while hunting birds, let alone all the hangers-on clamoring for your money. Shit was rough back in the day. That said, Gosford Park depicts the pitfalls and luxuries so well that I can’t say I wouldn’t give up the Internet and pool for cold water basins and nights of classical music.

If you’ve seen this movie you totally get what I mean. They’ve been showing the movie a lot on the premium channels, and whenever it’s on, I can’t help but see what’s going to happen, for with such a overlapping and nuanced stories built around numerous complicated characters, Gosford Park is one of those movies that unfolds anew with each re-watching. Every time I see it, I learn something new, another layer of the onion is revealed.

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Why ‘Maleficent’ Failed http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/why-maleficent-failed/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/why-maleficent-failed/#comments Wed, 11 Jun 2014 14:47:47 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=262130 WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Not that it matters. “Yet I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem.” Nobody, and I mean nobody, was more excited than me when...

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WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!

Not that it matters.

“Yet I know it’s true that visions are seldom all they seem.”

Nobody, and I mean nobody, was more excited than me when I read Angelina Jolie was cast as the titular character in Maleficent. I know I’m not the first weird gay kid to fall in love with Maleficent, the greatest of all Disney villains. I know I’m not the only one who funneled my insecurities and revenge fantasies into the badassery of her diva fits and the self-indulgent joy she took pride in as The Mistress of All Evil. Hundreds, maybe thousands, claim ownership over her fandom, which is exactly why I’m writing this. I was the weird kid who didn’t play sports because I was studying Sleeping Beauty. I was the chubby gay boy who made my mother buy a Queen-size bed sheet to use as a cape when I pretended to be Maleficent. I was the outcast who ritualistically called out her spells, swinging a plastic “staff” (it was a toy microphone stand) atop the gray ottoman in our living room, making damn sure Prince Phillip would not get to King Stefan’s castle. In many ways, I’m both exactly for whom this film was made and the worst person for whom this film was made. One could say I was merely expecting too much. Sorry, Disney’s not getting off that easily.

Let me tell you what Maleficent means to me, to us. She is the self-possessed, loner goddess with the greatest magical powers in the realm. She is feared by all and loves it, for she is a conduit for evil. And by “evil,” I mean the antagonist forces that oppose the heteronormative bullshit that fairytales laud as the light of god. She is the woman content to live in a crumbling castle, her only companions being the bumbling trolls who don’t know babies age and the crow she’s chosen as her familiar. She’s confident, powerful, and knows how to make an entrance—everything a persecuted gay boy wants. And the real-life embodiment of all that power is undoubtedly Angelina Jolie. So, when this bullied gay kid, who is now a melodramatic adult, first heard rumor of the Jolie casting, I sang its possibilities from the mountain tops and offered thanks and hope to the universe. Okay, I just posted it on Facebook, but isn’t that really the same thing? Beyond Maleficent’s inert force and character schema and looking past the perfection of Jolie’s casting, the triumph of Maleficent’s presence in the Disney classic Sleeping Beauty can be summed up by Tim Brayton, the genius movie critic who runs his own blog entitled “Antagony and Ecstasy.” He writes:

Maleficent combines the three things that go into making all of the best Disney villains:
-She is a woman
-She uses magic
-She is defined by the color black.
Black as the pitch of night, that’s what she is: sleek, flowing black lines, edged with royal purple, against a sickly green background, with cadaver-pale skin and yellow eyes, Maleficent is pretty much the least-subtle evil being possible, but she is also the most commanding visual element in every frame that she occupies because of it.

That’s what she means to the legion of fans who’ve seen Sleeping Beauty hundreds of times. And honestly, for Disney to shit on our good will with the embarrassment of Maleficent is disgraceful, especially after an overwhelming promotional campaign that made me so excited  I Instagram’d this on May 19:

Let’s go in, shall we?

First, someone needs to tell writer Linda Woolverton what a moor is. A moor is not a land  of hills and forest filled with magical creatures that look like rejects from the world of Harry Potter. This is not a moor:

This is a moor:

A flat, windswept land, most likely in the English countryside, upon which tragic lovers named Heathcliff and Katharine can find love and solitude.

Second, why does child Maleficent live in a tree? I mean, she has wings, but I see no nest. In fact, I don’t see anything else that looks like her in the forest. She is supposed to be a fairy, but all the other fairies are these annoying sprites who are clueless to everything.

Third, are we just supposed to accept the mystery of Maleficent’s parents’ death? She empathizes with the young Stefan, who will later roofie her (we’ll get to that in a second), when he says his parents are dead. I think both sets of parents died of boredom.

Fourth, there’s a war in the first half of this movie that is completely glossed over, which brings me to pacing. This movie is choppier than the vomit-inducing whale watching trip I took in the fourth grade. Maleficent, much like the catastrophes of the 2010 Alice in Wonderland and the 2011 Oz, the Great and Powerful, is the perfect storm of irresponsible storytelling: a mega-star name to sell, the latest CGI technology at the film maker’s disposal, and the brand of a beloved classic to fuck over with a series of strung-together scenes that ultimately tell no single story but instead almost taunt the very notion of cohesion. Let me tell you what this movie should have been. It should have been an epic, three-part fantasy extravaganza. It should have been an adult trilogy in which one of the greatest of Disney characters is given the tragic life story she, and we, deserve. Instead, we got a children’s movie filled with haphazard moments. How awesome would the story of Maleficent had been had it been given the Game of Thrones treatment? The first movie could have been about her painful youth, why she’s different, how she deals with it, culminating in the burdensome realization that she’s been chosen as the protector of the moors (which aren’t moors) and must defend her land in an epic war. The second movie could have been about her relationship with Stefan, the kind peasant boy who becomes her only friend only to betray her, convincing her that true love doesn’t exist. I imagine that in the last moment of that second movie a vile minion tells Maleficent, whose heart is finally pure stone, that Stefan, now king, has had a daughter and there’s to be a christening. And then the third movie could be the serious, R-rated retelling of the Sleeping Beauty myth. It’s got all the elements of a fantasy-driven epic : royalty, magic. There’s even a dragon! Except, of course, that dragon is not Maleficent herself (the climax of her story arch in Sleeping Beauty) but instead her crow, which shape shifts in Maleficent at his mistress’ behest. Incidentally, the elocution of this magical command is really a triumph of language artistry on the writer’s part. Maleficent says, “Into a dragon.” So creative, right?

What pains me the most is the missed opportunity. No one in this generation will ever be more suited to this part than Angelina Jolie. With her Born This Way cheek prosthetics, her leather-bound horns, and her disaffected gaze, she perfectly embodies Maleficent. You can’t take your eyes off her. She is perfect for this role and does everything she can to try to save Maleficent from becoming incoherent twaddle. She does not succeed. It’s a jumble of CGI and missed moments that culminate in a “plot” twist that was done better in Frozen. Aurora is not awoken by Prince Phillip. Hell, by the time Aurora’s sleeping in the castle’s topmost tower, Phil’s only been in one other scene. He doesn’t even know her. No, it is Maleficent who kisses her awake. True love’s kiss did not come via the lips of a wandering prince but via the guilt of the curser. How did Maleficent, the most reviled enemy in the land, merely walk into King Stefan’s castle? Your guess is as good as mine.

And now we come to the roofie scene. Among the myriad of arbitrary moments is a scene in which Stefan, seizing his chance at becoming king, drugs Maleficent and cuts off her wings. How in any way is this scene fit for a children’s movie, for any movie? A power-thirsty man literally clips the wings of the most powerful woman in the land after he’s taken advantage of her love and vulnerability by poisoning her. Yes, young humans for whom this film was made, let’s make one thing very clear. While it’s great to be an empowered woman with all the powers of magic literally at your fingertips, do remember that a man with a power complex (or iron) can take all that away in one date. Don’t ever be vulnerable, young people, for that may be the moment you lose your ability to soar, the moment you are violently stripped of your freedom.

The near date rape of Maleficent aside, there was no need to give Maleficent a back-story. Just as Jim Carrey’s The Grinch was ridiculous, just as Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was ridiculous, so was Maleficent. These are characters born of the wind, pure in form and unjustifiably singular. The Grinch hates Christmas not because of something that happened to him in his childhood but because he is the trickster inhabiting the hills around Whoville. Willy Wonka is not a candy-making recluse because his father was an overbearing dentist; he makes candy because he’s the magician spun together of the scent of peanuts and the warmth of hot chocolate. Maleficent is not evil because she was a lonely fairy whose wings were clipped by a boy she thought loved her. Maleficent is evil because the darkness gifted her to us. She is the dark flame of conflict in a world in which nuclear families treat the disassociated like monsters. Before Lady Gaga was Mother Monster, Maleficent was the queen of the monsters. To turn her into an emo vamp who doesn’t turn into a dragon as a last ditch effort to keep the archetypal straight man and woman from copulating is, as Maleficent herself would say, a disgrace to the forces of evil. Shame on you, Disney, for making millions of dollars by reducing one of your greatest characters to the common denominator. Shame on you, Disney, for tempting us with the possibility of a biopic of one of your classic villains only to drug her. And shame on you for disappointing the millions of us who know who Maleficent is and what she truly stands for. Money is not magic, Disney, and maybe  you should look at your own shit show of a movie to see what happens when the lust for power and riches consumes the minds of those in charge.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Ninth Gate http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-the-ninth-gate/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-the-ninth-gate/#comments Fri, 06 Jun 2014 17:13:21 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=262076 Warning! Spoilers Ahead! Okay, I, like most of the human race, am a Johnny Depp fan. Did you catch my saccharine praise fest of Edward Scissorhands a few months ago?...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

Okay, I, like most of the human race, am a Johnny Depp fan. Did you catch my saccharine praise fest of Edward Scissorhands a few months ago? It’s awesome. You should go read it. And yes, I saw Transcendence, and boy was that a shit show. Which is my point, I believe in being a fan, but I also believe in being an honest, responsible fan. I’m perfectly willing to call out my favorite actor (or president) when they’ve done awful work. And Johnny has done some awful work. I mean, who saw The Tourist? Eesh.

The Ninth Gate is an anomaly. I know it’s a bad film. It has a lot wrong with it. It’s mostly Depp’s character Corso carrying around a book while being chased. And yet, I’m totally mesmerized by every frame. Granted, I am fan of Roman Polanksi’s work. A big fan. I don’t endorse his sexual proclivities, but I am perfectly capable of separating the man from his work. Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown are two of my all-time favorite films, and I’d write about them here if they weren’t actually considered classics.

The Ninth Gate is about books. That’s another reason I can’t help buy love this movie. I’m a writer. I’m a reader. I have piles of books on my desk, shelves overflowing with tomes my friends and family are afraid I’ll ask them to help me move one day. Mr. Polanksi made a movie for book people with The Ninth Gate. This is a movie for the book nerd in all of us. And let me tell ya, Johnny Depp makes a hot book nerd.

Set in recent times, The Ninth Gate is about a less-than-ethical book dealer (Depp) hired by Frank Langella to authenticate his copy of an ancient book called The Nine Gates of The Kingdom of Shadows, reportedly written by Satan himself. Only three copies exist, and Langella’s character wants to be sure his is real, so Depp searches the world to try and find the other copies. He has no problem finding the other two copies. Of course, things go wrong and, which is so common in a Polanksi film, a conspiracy larger than himself starts to engulf Depp’s character. French aristocrats are choked with their Hermes scarves. Scaffolding collapses. Strangers are seen out of the corner of one’s eye.

The plot falls apart three quarters of the way through, leaving the beauty of Emmanuelle Singer the only thing really to watch. Depp is at his most awkward in this film, never really committing to being either sexy or nerdy. He generally chooses the latter, which I personally think is very sexy. The beauty of this film is in its seriousness. Much like the cult classic Showgirls, The Ninth Gate was made in complete earnest. No one had a clue it would be such a shit show. I love movies like this. Does anyone remember the Madonna catastrophe Swept Away? Sure, I own it, but whatever, it’s an awful but amazing movie.

Polanksi’s strength is in beautiful tableaus. He catches the old world charm of French libraries and the dusty streets of Spain with exquisite detail and authentic understanding. The attention to detail is astounding. A scene in which Depp’s messenger bag is overturned by a lover, his stuff spilling on to a hotel floor, comes to mind. There’s a notebook and tissue and keys and a wallet. It wreaks of verisimilitude, giving the movie that extra push into decent territory. The books are so old, so well worn, you can almost smell the leather and the fading pages.

Not one of Depp’s classics, and basically the same plot as Polanski’s more recent film The Ghost Writer, The Ninth Gate is still a fun movie that I discover people secretly love. Whenever it’s on Cinemax, I leave it on. I even have it saved in on my recorded list in my DVR for those moments when I just need something on. It’s not a great film, but it’s badass, and you should definitely give it chance.

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The Film Cult Presents: Indie Game: The Movie http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-indie-game-the-movie/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-indie-game-the-movie/#comments Fri, 23 May 2014 16:12:44 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=261783 Warning! Spoilers Ahead! This week, I’m going to review another recent film just as I did last week. It’s an underrated documentary well known in only a few circles, which...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!

This week, I’m going to review another recent film just as I did last week. It’s an underrated documentary well known in only a few circles, which is a real shame because if you look past the specific subject matter of the film’s focus, Indie Game: The Movie is not so much about video games as it is about the sacrifices one makes for their art and the commitment needed to fulfill one’s vision. The film revolves around the development and impact of three independently made and released video games: Super Meat Boy, Fez, and Braid, which has become one of the most acclaimed indie video games of all time. It’s my belief that true art emerges of certain criteria which are often painful and misunderstood by many. For this review, I’d like to examine several of these concepts as they relate to this film: sacrifice, isolation, and obsession.

Indie Game: The Movie focuses primarily on four men and their lives developing the aforementioned video games. These men are Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, who are the creators of Super Meat Boy, Phil Fish, the developer of Fez, and Jonathan Blow, the man who created Braid and the much-hyped, but as yet unreleased, The Witness.

Each of these men, in their own way, embody sacrifice. Edmund McMillen’s wife discusses how she only ever sees her husband’s back. Tommy Refenes, sitting alone at a dinner, tells the camera about how he can’t date because he could only afford one meal and how he never goes out. Phil Fish describes his business partnership dissolving, as well as his romantic relationship. Jonathan Blow is the exception, for he doesn’t blatantly discuss having to sacrifice for his games, seemingly being fine with the fact that he lives a solitary life.  That said, I’d put money that he’s had to sacrifice plenty, including romantic relationships. For, as Tommy says, “You kinda have to give up something to get something great.”

One of the products of the social sacrifices these men, and many other artists, make is the fact that their day-to-day lives are solo. While business and development partners, Edmund and Tommy work on opposite sides of the continent, Edmund in Santa Cruz and Refenes in North Carolina. Phil Fish and his assistant coder sit in a practically unfurnished office, tapping away at their computers, trying to finish production of Fez. Adding to the point of their isolation, the filmmakers use many wide shots of vast cityscapes that then cut to the developers sitting by themselves. There are other crowd shots where the developers are looking at their phone or staring off into the distance, separate to the blur of humanity around them.  The developers are not unlike writers or painters, or any other artists who take devotion to their craft to the  Nth degree. They work alone, the computer and them, creating something that will hopefully be played by millions of avid gamers the world over. Their isolation is in direct conversation with the invisible thousands and millions they will touch. The promise of that, that faith in that future interaction, is what drives all art.

And one cannot maintain that level of sacrifice or isolation without obsession. Like the melodramatic stories one tries to ignore every day, each of these men have had difficulties in their lives. It’s no surprise listening to Edmund talk about how awful his step father was that he now uses video games to express himself. All of us artists do that. We can create here in bedrooms, touch you all out there, and never have to actually meet you. That is the true blessing of art—distance.

Obsession, for these men and countless other people, means devotion. The line is not blurred; it doesn’t exist. They literally are giving their lives to these games. This is apparent no greater than in the scene where the filmmakers ask Phil Fish what he would do if he didn’t get a chance to finish Fez. He says that he would kill himself. In fact, he says that finishing the game is the only thing that was keeping him alive. He had to stay alive to finish creating a video game. That is devotion.

The stories of these games is still unfolding, and everyone portrayed within the film is still alive, still figuring out how to devote their lives to their art without losing their lives. It’s a struggle all of us have to deal with. We all hope that a million people will buy our art, or at least some of them will understand it. I’m glad the filmmakers decided to pursue this subject matter, for we viewers often become numb to the kooky sculptors and musicians that fleck our lives, but to see grown men give their lives to video game development—well, that’s worth all the money it took on Kickstarter to get this movie made.

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The Film Cult Presents: Hanna http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-review/the-film-cult-presents-hanna/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/movie-review/the-film-cult-presents-hanna/#comments Fri, 16 May 2014 17:54:11 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=261696 Warning! Spoilers Ahead! I don’t normally review movies this recent, but having just seen it appear on another website’s list of ten movies one may have overlooked in the last...

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Warning! Spoilers Ahead!


I don’t normally review movies this recent, but having just seen it appear on another website’s list of ten movies one may have overlooked in the last several years, I thought I’d give Hanna some due diligence, as I believe/pray/hope it will become a cult classic in years to come. It certainly deserves cult film status. While not a blockbuster, it’s still considered a financial success, having brought in a worldwide total of $63,782,078. While the movie’s numbers are solid, the fact remains many still have never even heard of or seen this film, which is disheartening because I think it’s one of the best films made in the last five years.

The premise is your classic sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the woods with her dad and has been trained as a total bad-ass ninja then is told she must meet her dad in Berlin after he alerts the CIA to their whereabouts. Hanna is also told that a woman named Marissa will try to kill her, so she better have been paying attention during all those karate and hunting lessons. Well, everything goes to plan, and maybe this is the only flaw in the movie: the big “reveal” is seen from a million miles away and everything expected to happen generally does. But, what happens is so much fun and exquisitely shot that I give the movie a pass for running out of steam three-quarters in.

In no small part is Hanna’s awesomeness due to its cast, which includes the queen of everything Beyoncé isn’t, Cate Blanchett, who celebrated a birthday earlier this week. As Marissa, her steely eyes and perfect southern accent give her such a sinisterly fun quality, one can’t help but be seduced by her intensity and earnestness, knowing full well that she wants to kill Hanna and you, if she had the chance. It’s one of Cate’s more understated roles (no Oscar nods or monarchs here) but it’s one of her most underrated. Incidentally, for another underrated Cate Blanchett vehicle, you should rent Bandits. She’s hilarious.

Moving on, Eric Bana, who I’d love to be my daddy stuck in the woods with any day of the week, plays Hanna’s father with an iron jaw and focused precision that wreaks of strength and confidence. Little good it does him. Saoirse Ronan, whom everyone should go see in The Grand Budapest Hotel, as Hanna has an ethereal beauty to her, so much so that one can almost believe that, while she’s a cold-blooded killer, her innocence is completely intact. Speaking of cast, keep an eye out for Michelle Dockery, Lady Mary herself, in an almost missable moment.

Cinematography is the other main reason this movie is so engrossing. The opening shots of a snow-covered Finland give justice to the stark beauty inherent to a desolate landscape. The same can be said for the shots taken of the dessert when Hanna escapes the CIA. To start in a landscape that feels very “north of the wall” then to take the viewer to the desert, where you can almost feel your own arms begin to sunburn, only to end up in an abandoned amusement park in the German forest leads me to believe that the filmmakers knew the whole film couldn’t run, as no story can, on premise alone. Run out of story? Only have chases left? Perfect, use stylistic choices any serious Tumblr addict would go mad for.

In reviewing this film, I’d also be remiss to mention several fun sequences. The first is when an English family help Hanna escape the desert. Hanna finds her equivalent in this family, a girl named Sophie, who is the comic core of the whole film. She delivers her quips in such perfectly obnoxious way you can’t help but be sad when Hanna must leave them behind. Really, Sophie’s hilarious. Also not to be missed is a super-quick fight sequence with Eric Bana. Again, it’s really the style here that’s most important. I don’t think this scene is an ode to The Wiz, but I could be wrong, because it looks like the same set, to me anyway. And finally, the other great scene is the chase in the shipyard, where all those crates provide enough wacky opportunities to give the whole thing a Bond feel that is rad as fuck.

With that, Hanna is an awesome film about a teenager ninja with a face made for Instagram. She’s got a hot dad, a secret she doesn’t even know, and one of the greatest actresses of our time is trying to kill her. What more could the public want beside a plot and premise that saw its way through to the end of the movie? Everyone’s so picky these days. This is a fun movie with gorgeous shots, hot actors, and yes even some great one-liners.

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The Film Cult Presents: Death on the Nile http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-death-on-the-nile/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-death-on-the-nile/#comments Fri, 09 May 2014 17:28:06 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=261553 Warning! Minor Spoilers Ahead! In the late seventies, fading movie stars used to join ensemble casts in campy films to stay working, to keep their names in the public eye....

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Warning! Minor Spoilers Ahead!

In the late seventies, fading movie stars used to join ensemble casts in campy films to stay working, to keep their names in the public eye. The Towering Inferno was one such movie. Death on the Nile, this week’s Film Cult Presents selection, is also one of these movies. Bette Davis had been famous—I mean, famous—for over thirty years by the time Death on the Nile was filmed. She’d already done Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, which some marked as a comeback, and yet, she still felt the need to be in movies below her, movies that were downright kitschy. It’s a shame what the business of show does to its aging stars.

That said, Death on the Nile remains one of my favorite films of all time. I have a soft spot for Agatha Christie narratives. They’re always set in some glamorous locale like Mesopotamia, on the Orient Express, or in the Caribbean. Someone sort of deserving bastard ends up dead and a group of people who all benefited from the death are examined, one by one, usually in catty brilliance, until Hercule Poirot (the Belgian sleuth portrayed perfectly in this film by Peter Ustinov) or Miss Jane Marple (the old lady with the steel trap mind) remember a seemingly innocuous fact and save the day just in time for tea.

Death on the Nile fits this mold. A rich heiress is newly married to a handsome playboy. They spend their honeymoon going down the Nile, and when the heiress turns up dead, all the passengers are suspects, as everyone has a motive. Hercule Poirot does his damnedest to eliminate suspects, but it’s clear everyone wanted the beautiful Mrs. Simon Doyle dead. Don’t worry, no spoilers here. This mystery is too much fun to be ruined. Check it out for yourself and see if you can figure out who the culprit is.

Despite the fun of the mystery, did I mention that Maggie Smith is Bette Davis’ paid companion? She and Davis, the most talented actors in the bevy of suspects by far, spar and and snap at each other more than contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, and it’s brilliant.

Also in attendance on the luxury cruiser is Mia Farrow, whose waif innocence is heartbreaking yet anchored in the prowess of her talent. Interesting to note that Mia Farrow is the best friend of Mrs. Doyle whose murder is the core plot of the film. Mrs. Doyle is played by Lois Chiles, who also played Mia’s close friend in The Great Gatsby four years earlier. Their chemistry is still as stunted and random as it was on West Egg. Saving the day from their flat interactions is Angela Lansbury, delivering a showstopping performance as a boozy romance novelist with feathers in her bedazzled turbans and over-the-top gesticulations highlighting each of her sex-laden axioms. She’s a hurricane of hilarity, and her tango is as fierce as they come:


No expense was spared on the shoot. The locale is authentic, and the costumes and jewelry are also as such. The film won an Oscar for Best Costume Design. The cinematography also pulls no punches, not that it’s difficult to make ancient monuments in Egypt look bad. Shooting on site gives the film strong verisimilitude, which is always necessary when the story is a basic whodunit. Regarding the authenticity of location, Bette Davis famously said, “In the older days, they’d have built the Nile for you. Nowadays, films have become travelogues and actors stunt men.” Well said, Ms. Davis. Well said.

That aside, the pace of the film is surprisingly strong for a mystery that plays out on a giant paddle boat. The star power may have something to do with that, although there are moments when one feels the writers could have cut some scenes short. The plot exposition becomes a little tedious towards the beginning, and in order to make all the suspects seem truly capable of murder, their hatred of Mrs. Doyle gets hammered in pretty solidly.

Of the many Agatha Christie adaptations, it’s easy for this to get lost in the shuffle, what with Murder on the Orient Express considered a classic. Still, this is one of the better ones. This and Evil Under the Sun (which also stars Peter Ustinov and Maggie Smith) are definitely my favorites. It’s escapist, fun movie-making at its finest. If you love a bit of camp and a whole lot of murder, then Death on the Nile is right up your river. Besides, what’s better than seeing a bunch of rich people kill each other?

P.S. Keep a look out for a young Jane Birkin, three years before she shared a plane with Jean-Louis Dumas and he named a thirty thousand dollar bag after her.

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The Film Cult Presents: Addams Family Values http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-addams-family-values/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-addams-family-values/#comments Fri, 02 May 2014 16:52:17 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=261396 The sequel to the creepy and spooky sequel that made the Addams clan a symbol for the intelligent outsider.

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Warning! Spoiler Alert!

“Gomez, wonderful news. I’m going to have a baby–right now.”
I like to imagine that on a bleak hill somewhere in Los Angeles, maybe tucked away in a forgotten part of Griffith Park, a crumbling mansion houses a mysterious and kooky family prone to histrionics and macabre glamor. And no, I’m not talking about Grey Gardens. This family is bigger, has far more money, and has come to symbolize the intelligent outsider. I’m talking, of course, of the Addams Family. Cue the theme song:


As far as sequels go, Addams Family Values isn’t that great of a movie. This is no The Godfather II.  In terms of plot, Addams Family Values (along withe the first movie, The Addams Family) suffers from one of the most difficult story-telling conundrums of the modern age. How do you write a believable conflict for a family that thrives on, and truly revels in, conflict with the laws of physics, nature, and danger? The writers came up with two answers. One, create a threat to their money. And the Debbie storyline (murderous gold-digger marries Uncle Fester for the family fortune) shows they hardly tried their best. In fact, that plot is particularly shameful since it was the plot of the first movie. The Fester/Debbie relationship is only saved by the fact that Joan Cusack is hilarious. Her comic timing and over-the-top facial expressions save a majority from the movie being too tedious.

The more intelligent answer to the conflict conundrum of the Addams clan is to put them in direct conflict with the outside world. Perfect, let’s send Wednesday and Pugsley to summer camp to interact with normies. When you first encounter the family you’re sort of repulsed, a little confused, and very often scared. You don’t think you could relate to them, thinking that you’d relate to the folks at the summer camp rather than the dark and twisted Addams crew, but once you’ve spent a few moments in the Addams mansion, you begin to wish you were  part of that family. They have a loyalty to each other and a certain classic aesthetic that they all take very seriously. Who else has a family cemetery adjacent to their dilapidated mansion? When the money-thieving Debbie realizes Wednesday, who is nobody’s fool, is onto her, she convinces Morticia and Gomez to pack them off to camp.

The camp segments of this movie (and boy, I said a mouthful there) are among the greatest moments in the Addams franchise. So much so, that the famous Thanksgiving pageant they put on entitled “A Turkey Named Brotherhood” is venturing into classic territory. With Wednesday (portrayed masterfully by Christina Ricci) leading a tribe of perceived social pariahs and misfits, white supremacy is thwarted by the greater truths and principles of indigenous genocide. This is the movie’s genius. Yuppie white families are the greatest enemies of the Addams philosophy. In the first movie, when a girl scout asks Wednesday if her lemonade is made of real lemons, Wednesday retorts, “Are you girl scout cookies made of real girl scouts?” And when the first Thanksgiving is dissolved into a vigilante riot scene—the pilgrims burning, the camp counselors roasting on a spit—Wednesday, who is finally in her element, strikes a match as the Addams theme swells.

The Addams family isn’t weird because their pet is a dismembered hand. The Addams Family is weird because society has created a stigma against actual taste and intelligence. When Debbie has succeeded in taking Uncle Fester from the family, Morticia (played by a black-clad Angelica Houston at her most Goddess-esque) stands in Debbie’s tacky home and forgives her for everything she’s done (enslavement, a sexual spell) but what she cannot forgive is Debbie’s use of pastels. When in the opening sequence, a pastel-clad little girl tells Wednesday and Pugsley how her “mommy kissed daddy and the angel told the stork, and the stork flew down from heaven and left a diamond under a leaf in the cabbage patch, and the diamond turned into a baby!” Pugsley says, “Our parents are having a baby too,” to which Wednesday dryly adds,

The Addams credo should be “We stand for truth and good taste.” Instead, of course, their credo is actually “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us.” I like to think that their weapons against a world that doesn’t understand them is truth and a level of self-love gurus spend a lifetime looking for. They delight in their own eccentricities because to themselves they aren’t eccentric. It’s perfectly normal to have your family weddings in the cemetery. It’s perfectly normal for children to play with a guillotine and dress up your infant little brother as Marie Antoinette. At first you laugh at them, but soon you want to be them.

And in closing, I’d be remiss to mention the great Raul Julia who truly has only one great scene in the entire movie. As the family patriarch, he gave a life to the Gomez character that easily dethrones John Astin as the consummate Gomez. Raul Julia’s passing robbed the world of a beautiful, talented man who gave believable life to a horny husband obsessed with murder and mayhem. In Addams Family Values, as his brother is taken from him, as his children are carted off to their personal version of hell, Gomez takes matters into his own hands when the police (played, naturally by Nathan Lane) fail to help him. I leave you with his glorious meltdown.

P.S. Keep a lookout for a pre-Sex and the City Cynthia Nixon.

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The Film Cult Presents: Shaun of the Dead http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-shaun-of-the-dead/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-shaun-of-the-dead/#comments Fri, 18 Apr 2014 16:12:09 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=261128 Warning! Spoiler Alert!   There’s a lot a competition for best zombie movie. Some might say the best was the racially tinged horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. They...

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Warning! Spoiler Alert!

 

There’s a lot a competition for best zombie movie. Some might say the best was the racially tinged horror classic, Night of the Living Dead. They wouldn’t be far off the mark. If you’re a sixteen-year-old girl you might say it’s Warm Bodies. If you’re a bro obsessed with Bill Murray, you might go with Zombieland as your fave. Mine, and frankly the best, is Shaun of the Dead. I love Simon Pegg. In his down time from acting in blockbuster behemoths he’s always crafting together a brilliant gem close to his, and our, nerdy heart. These gems are invariable entertaining: Hot Fuzz, The World’s End, Paul—all great, but none are as brilliant as Shaun of the Dead.

A hapless dote with a shite job and a lovable slob for a best friend realize they have to save their loved ones when the zombies attack. Such a simple premise. It’s those simple premises in the hands of brilliant writers that always turn out for the best. For instance, a newly wedded couple moves into the Dakota and gives birth to the Antichrist? Done and done, Rosemary’s Baby was a hit novel, a classic horror film, and even an upcoming miniseries staring Zoe Saldana. Simple premises lead to esteemed legacies. And Simon Pegg is on his way.

Zombie movies rise several times a year, always reminding us that the dead are never really gone and  that what our true natures are brutal and savage. It’s the vanquishing of the zombies, the chopping off of their heads or the burning of their rotting bodies, that reassures us that we may might just hold off the end times (that horrid moment when we devour each other) just a little longer. The human race demands an endgame, and zombie narratives (along with comets, disease epidemics, and natural disasters) are our favorite art form in which to experiment with the our own demise. And it’s the most personal. We can’t fight comets. We can try to fight aliens. We can’t see diseases, but just ask Brad Pitt what happens when the disease turns people into zombies. We can seek shelter when the tsunamis, earthquakes, and storms come, but look how well that went for the dinosaurs. A zombie apocalypse is personal because it’s us. How do we fight ourselves when we’ve suddenly become a danger to each other? I mean, besides with a cricket bat.

Taking this theme and concept to a British suburb, Shaun of the Dead is characteristic of many zombie narratives in that it uses the undead invasion as a prism in which to see Shaun’s closest, interpersonal relationships: the girlfriend he is doomed to disappoint, the loser friend he should have ditched years ago, and the mom and stepdad for whom he’ll never be good enough. While essentially a loser in the beginning of the film, he becomes the leader of his kith and kin’s survival party, showing us through humor and heart that it might just take the most dire of circumstances to reveal one’s heroic nature. This heroic nature is tester (spoiler alert) in the movie’s greatest moment in which his mother becomes a zombie and he must kill her. It’s a heart-wrenching moment tucked exquisitely among the action and humor.

And speaking of humor, we can’t forget that Shaun of the Dead is simply funny as hell. A feast for the observant nerd, the film is typical of other Simon Pegg vehicles in that subtle jokes are paid off hours later, delightfully telling details are thrown in for those watching close enough, and references to B-plots and other narratives are scattered among the bloody river of English Wit. It’s generally difficult to translate British humor into American lexicon, so I get it if some don’t find this movie as entertaining as I do. It might help to know that instead of saying a phone line is “busy” the Brits say “engaged.” It may help to also know that a common nickname for men called David is “Davs”, pronounced like “calves.” That said, most of the jokes work just fine, and what starts as a series of awkward situations slowly turns into hilarious, action-packed romp.

Actors to watch out for. Shaun’s mom? Yup, that’s Penelope Wilton, more commonly known as Mrs. Crawly, Mathew’s mother on Downton Abbey. When Shaun’s crew meets their counterparts in the alleyway? Yup, that’s Martin Freeman, before he became Dr. Watson and Bilbo Baggins, as Shaun’s doppelgänger. And be sure not to miss a sutble Bill Nighy as Shaun’s stepfather.

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The Film Cult Presents: The Witches http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-the-witches/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-the-witches/#comments Fri, 11 Apr 2014 17:07:31 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=261029 Based on books by master storyteller Roald Dahl, The Witches is one of those children’s movies that’s downright frightening.

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WARNING! SPOILER ALERT!
Poor Luke can’t catch a break. His American parents die in a car crash during a family trip to Norway. His grandmother collapses on his birthday in a diabetic coma after she gives him two mice. A literal witch tries to lure him out of a tree house with a poisonous snake. And, oh yeah, he spends the majority of this brilliant film as a mouse.

One of the many movies based on books by master storyteller Roald Dahl, The Witches is, much like Return to Oz which I reviewed last month, one of those children’s movies that’s downright frightening. I don’t know what it is about children’s movies, but since the beginning of children’s cinema—from when Snow White‘s Queen hires a man to cut out Snow’s heart up until Elsa an Anna’s parents die in a shipwreck—young protagonists are thrown into parentless, dire situations. I’d love to see a classic children’s movie in which the parents are fine, in which the children aren’t in real danger. Of course, there’d be no movie if that were the case.

Well, young Luke is in definite danger. But, even before we get to Luke’s storyline, one of the most frightening moments in The Witches happens at the very beginning, when Luke’s grandmother tells the story of her young, schoolgirl friend Erica who disappears from the streets of Norway at the hands of the Grand High Witch. Eventually, the girl reappears, but only (and disturbingly) in her parents’ oil painting. Trapped in the painting, we see the child age: first a young girl, then a woman,  and finally a hunched-over hag who one day literally fades out of the picture.

From there, after his parents die, Luke, his grandmother, and his mice go to the English seaside for a holiday. There, woefully, a convention of witches is convening to discuss how to better kill the children of England. And in the first time I was ever introduced to her as an actress, Angelica Houston herself plays the Grand High Witch. She is the diva of all divas, only being out-eviled possibly by Maleficent. Angelica’s performance is dramatic and over-the-top, all things befitting a grand high witch who wants to turn British kids into mice so she can step on them. Adding to the magic, after Angelica takes off her face and scalp (yup, you read that right) the Grand High Witch is portrayed by a Jim Henson Creature Shop creation that is straight out of a child’s nightmare. It’s great, and I never thought a molded piece of polyurethane could out act Angelica Houston.

In a delightful cameo, Rowan Atkinson plays the befuddled hotel manager, wondering where and why all the women convening are itching their scalps, as he tries to rid the building of all the new mice scattering about. His facial expressions and physical performance are on perfect display. Also making a pre-fame appearance is Jane Horrocks who you’ll remember as the ever-idiotic Bubble from Britain’s greatest television program ever, Absolutely Fabulous.

Through the phenomenal storytelling of Roald Dahl, whose imaginative plots and premises are among my favorite in the whole world (I mean, come on, James and the Giant Peach?) The Witches moves pretty fast through a compelling narrative. While still maintaining its classic children’s movie edge, the journey Luke must go on to no longer be a mouse and save the children of England from a murderous witch is harrowing. He must overcome kitchens filled with knives and boiling pots of soup as well as the witches themselves who love nothing more then to stomp on the mouses, splattering their guts all over the floor. Those moments are just this side of wince-inducing, which makes them actually fun.

There are  definitely some strange cuts in this movie. We move from Norway, to England, to the seaside pretty fast, but the delicious evilness and wicked witchery more than makes up for those awkward cuts. And I’m not the only one who feels this way either. In a very unprecedented score, The Witches is one of the few movies on Rotten Tomatoes to have a full 100% backing. I couldn’t agree more.

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The Film Cult Presents: Edward Scissorhands http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-edward-scissorhands/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-edward-scissorhands/#comments Fri, 04 Apr 2014 17:00:17 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=260827 WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Edward Scissorhands is definitely flawed. The ending is a predictable Saturday-matinee mob scene. The plot is loosely hung on a frame-work of stock characters and a fairy-tale...

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WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!
Edward Scissorhands is definitely flawed. The ending is a predictable Saturday-matinee mob scene. The plot is loosely hung on a frame-work of stock characters and a fairy-tale premise that started with Beauty and the Beast, probably before. It’s moral could ultimately be summed up as, “be nice to those who are different,” and the middle of the movie is an episodic adventure formula of what Edward can do with his hands to impress his new suburban neighbors. So why do I love this movie so much? Let’s explore why Edward Scissorhands is one of my favorite films of all times, and I don’t mean that lightly, for there are moments within that touch the sublimely heartfelt in a way no other movie can.

First and foremost, Johnny Depp and I should be friends. I think it’s pretty clear we would totally get each other. I mean, we could talk about buying islands, doing drugs with Hunter S. Thompson, what it’s like to live in France. You know, all the normal things. But, what we could really bond over is his first role in a Tim Burton film, Edward Scissorhands. Beating out Robert Downey Jr., Tom Cruise, and even Michael Jackson, Depp was given the part because upon his first time reading the script he wept like a newborn. I feel that, Johnny. I feel that. It’s that emotion that Depp brings to the forefront in his portrayal of Edward, that elementally gentle monster who can’t help but hurt those he loves because his very nature is dangerous.

Second, Winona Ryder as Kim. What better way to ensure chemistry between your lead actors than to have them be a real-life couple. When they look in each other’s eyes, you know it’s real. You can hear them laughing in Depp’s house overlooking the Sunset strip. You can see them walking around Venice, looking for hemp cloth and big rings that will turn their skin black, the fate of their relationship written in the stars above Los Angeles. Winona’s face, framed by that horrible wig, breaks your heart, and even as the grandmother telling her grandchild how the snow began in their neighborhood, you can’t help but fall in love with her.

Third, for being a sentimental movie about love and difference, the social commentary is caustic. The American dream of owning a house, having a cheerleader for a daughter, having barbecues with your friends, watering your lawn on a Sunday afternoon, watching football games with your son—all of that means nothing to Edward. In fact, all of that is as dangerous to him as he is to it. Ambrosia salad is awful, and the suburbs will destroy anything that doesn’t fit into its nauseatingly pastel world. By the end of the movie, when Edward realizes he must return to his mountain-top castle, he begins to literally destroy the neighborhood. As mentioned earlier, the middle of the movie is an episodic chunk of what he can mundanely do with his scissors: shrubs shaped like dinosaurs, asymmetrical haircuts for pet and owner, salad chopper, etc. Throughout all that safe suburban stuff, you’re just waiting for him to really use blades. As the townsfolk begin to swarm, after they’ve decided he’s dangerous, he destroys the wallpaper, vandalizes one of his topiaries, and punctures a stranger’s tire. And in the end, our morbid curiosity is rewarded when we get to see him finally take a life. He learns, even though he wants to so badly, he can never be a part of Kim’s life, and in so realizing, he will take down as much of that life to the best of his ability.

Also, it’s the soft moments, the nuanced yet simple writing (by the gifted screenwriter Caroline Thompson) that gets at the movie’s true heart. Take for instance, the ethics quiz Edward’s surrogate father, played by Alan Arkin, gives him near the plot’s climax. When given the scenario of finding a suitcase full of money, Edward must choose what to do: A, keep it. B, use it to buy gifts for his friends and loved ones. C, give it to the poor. D, give it to the police. When Edward replies that he’d give it to his loved ones, his surrogate mother, played by the heart-warming Diane Weist, sighs and says “Oh, Edward, it does seem that that’s what you should do, but it’s not.” Edward acts from a place of pure love, that debilitating, dangerous love that exists in the wild beyond those suffocating neighborhoods where the right answer is to give the money to the police.

But ultimately, for me anyway, it’s the moments between Edward and The Inventor, played by an aging Vincent Price in his last film role, that make this movie. In scenes with virtually no dialogue, we see The Inventor use his frightening, Gothic machines to make heart-shaped cookies. We see him read humorous poetry to a half-made Edward, instructing him that it’s okay to smile when something is funny. And in the film’s greatest moment, during a Christmas flashback, the great Inventor–the father who “didn’t wake up”–attempts to give his creation and son Edward a pair of real hands. The moment is devastating, and every time I see it, just like Johnny, I weep like a newborn.

Remember when Tim Burton used to make epic fairy tales about true outsiders in fantastical circumstances? Beetlejuice? The Nightmare Before Christmas? Pee Wee’s Big Adventure? Before he started making movies based on product potential, he made movies for us, the weird and nerdy who love like everyone else but hurt just a little more. Edward Scissorhands was the best of those films, and when Edward reached his lethal hand to us, we accepted it, blood and all. Edward Scissorhands is the greatest gift Tim Burton has given to us outsiders. I hope someday he remembers we’re still here.

 

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The Film Cult Presents: Battle Royale http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-battle-royale/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-battle-royale/#comments Fri, 28 Mar 2014 17:10:28 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=260654 WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! Battle Royale got a lot of press when the first Hunger Games movie came out. Hipsters were up in arms with protestations of “Rip off!” and “It’s...

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WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!

Battle Royale got a lot of press when the first Hunger Games movie came out. Hipsters were up in arms with protestations of “Rip off!” and “It’s been done!” I like to give The Hunger Games the benefit of the doubt. It’s not exactly the same movie. Don’t get me wrong, the similarities are striking: both based on a novel about a bunch of kids thrown together and forced to kill each other. There the similarities end, though. I know; I know. Those are big similarities, practically the entire premise of both movies being identical. True. True. But, The Hunger Games is a YA movie about Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth looking really hot in melodramatic circumstances. Battle Royale isn’t about heartthrobs. The Hunger Games is also a meditation on the nature of reality television. Battle Royale is about discipline, about keeping children in order, which I’m all for. I wouldn’t say I’m all for letting them go at each other with automatic weaponry, but I’m all for keeping them in line.

But, back to melodrama for a moment. Both of these movies thrive on melodrama. Where The Hunger Games uses melodrama in the District Twelve—the gray tones, the glory of being a baker of stony bread—Battle Royale uses melodrama in flashbacks fit for a Lifetime movie. These flashbacks, however, are used to establish and deepen characters. Does it work? Hard to say. The flashbacks are shot with enough feathered filtering to make Robert De Niro look like Nicole Ritchie. It works in that we now know more about the characters, thus making us more invested than we were before. Could the flashbacks be better? Oh, sure. But, then again, this is Japanese horror we’re talking about. Character development is hardly a subtle venture.

I’d be remiss to discuss the violence in Battle Royale. Talk about melodrama! People are gettin’ sliced and shot all over this island. You’re definitely expecting it, but it’s still totally unnerving when they shoot the first kid in the briefing room. Once out in the wild of Okishima, the blood and flesh fly like a haircut by Edward Scissorhands. Operatic in its ubiquity, the violence of Battle Royale starts off unnerving, moves into being almost humorous with its schlocky goriness, and then, which I’m assuming was director Koushun Takami’s ultimate point, becomes everyday, natural.

In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Stellan Skarsgard discusses his latest controversial take as Seligman in Lars von Trier’s much-hyped Nymphomaniac films. Discussing the ubiquitous  body parts, he states,  “Showing body parts…eventually becomes as normal as eating porridge in the morning.” And so it is with the violence in Battle Royale. It’s exciting at first, disturbingly graphic, but by the end, you understand that these are the rules. This is the world. People kill each other, and they’ll do it to survive, and they’ll do it to love whom they want.

While a meditation on the discipline of children and a statement on the numbness we experience in the face of constant violence, Battle Royale is also about how children hold the passwords to the future. It’s a beautiful comment on the technological gap between the current first-world youth and the generation before them. In any school in the world, in any family, it’s the nerdy kid who has the power. He or she instinctively knows what their adults will never master when it comes to using modern-day technology. Have you ever tried to teach your father how to use Instagram? I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s the nerdy kids that will save the world. They’re the ones who will override the security system and beat the game developers at their own game.

Battle Royale hits all the notes The Hunger Games didn’t. There are no heartthrobs or politically disenfranchised hillbilly’s trying to scrape a life together coal mining and studying mushrooms in the Appalachia . Battle Royale is about uniformed children learning to fend for themselves on a deserted island, an island whose natural beauty is the perfect backdrop for the kinds of exquisite murders and suicides that are the meat and potatoes of any self-respecting Japanese fairy tale. Currently available on Netflix live, Battle Royale deserves a night of your attention. Just make sure you’ve already eaten.

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The Film Cult Presents: Crumb http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-crumb/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-crumb/#comments Fri, 14 Mar 2014 16:58:12 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=260214 WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD! When I was a teenager, my neighbors let my parents borrow a bootleg VHS tape of Crumb, the documentary of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The cassette was...

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WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!

When I was a teenager, my neighbors let my parents borrow a bootleg VHS tape of Crumb, the documentary of underground cartoonist Robert Crumb. The cassette was kept on the top shelf of the tallest bookshelf in our den because they thought it was far too adult for me or my younger brother. Maybe they’d forgotten I was over six feet tall. One afternoon, home alone from school, I popped the tape in our old VCR and was overwhelmed with sex: narrated sexual acts, graphic sexual drawings, and even a woman pornographer discussing the sexual appetite of the documentary’s subject. Thereafter, every afternoon I would fast-forward through the “boring” parts in order to get to the sex. I was in teenage boy heaven.

Eventually, my parents returned the tape, and I didn’t see Crumb again until last June when Turner Classic Movies showed it at eleven PM on a Saturday night. Jumping at the chance to revisit some of my old provocations, I decided to watch the film from beginning to end for the first time. I was astonished.  As a kid I’d relegated Crumb to the same category as the Hustler magazines I’d found in my uncles’ bathrooms. Childhood treasures rarely hold up once the veil of innocence is destroyed by forms, taxes, and Trader Joe’s, but this was not the case with Crumb. It didn’t take long to realize that Crumb wasn’t porn. It was an honest portrait of an artist and his dysfunctional family.

Robert Crumb is most famous for his 1968, one-page comic “Keep on Truckin’” which became a counterculture slogan in the late sixties and early seventies. He’s also famous for illustrating the cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s album Cheap Thrills. After the fame of those two projects, he collaborated with such luminaries as writers Charles Bukowski and Harvey Pekar, illustrating many of Pekar’s American Splendor comics. Recently, Robert Crumb drew an unabridged depiction of the book of Genesis. He’s become so important to the world of comic illustration that for a cool thousand bucks you can purchase a six-volume, hardcover boxed set of his sketchbooks. By the time director Terry Swigoff convinced him to make the biographical documentary in the mid-nineties, Robert Crumb had already spent a lifetime trying to reconcile the tormented issues of his life through his art, providing Swigoff with an evocative wealth of material to (unapologetic pun incoming) draw upon. Crumb is relentless in its honesty, and it’s that honesty that both repels and endears us by the end of the film.

Early in the documentary, Robert Crumb admits to having been sexually attracted to Bugs Bunny. He obsessively draws women from his youth with whom he was infatuated. His depictions of sexual acts are uber-misogynist, turning women into sexual non-entities their pimply, deranged male counterparts use to act out various perversions. And yet, as evidenced in the film, women loved him. Throughout the movie, female fans are describing his large penis, offering to model for him, and defending his sexual fantasies. The conundrum is real for the viewer. Here is a strange man who uses his genius level talent to depict headless women in disgusting, racist, and nightmarish situations. Crumb pulls no punches in depicting the physiological foundation for his obsession with hardcore variances. The documentary’s message is clear: to understand what perverted the artist’s mind, one need look no further than his family.

Robert was one of five children: two brothers, who are featured in the film, and two sisters who decided not to participate. The familial portrait that emerges is one of parents constantly fighting, an abusive father who broke Robert’s collarbone as a child, and an amphetamine addicted mother. Charles, the oldest of the Crumb children, was also an artist, often taking after his tyrannical father by commanding Robert to draw for and with him. This fraternal overbearing affected Robert his whole life. In Crumb, now famous and wealthy, Robert confesses that he still thinks of Charles’ approval when he draws. Charles, who fought a physiological urge towards pedophelia his whole life, was also beaten regularly by their father, leaving such an indelible mark that in his adult life he never left his mother’s house, reread the stacks of novels in his room, and obsessively drew line designs in his notebooks. His depression is given the same raw treatment as Robert’s sexuality because the only way to portray Robert Crumb’s life is to go all the way in, to show Charles’ matted hair, his messy room, and the hatred in his face when he’s yelling at their mother. He’s the twisted, deranged heart of the documentary, and in tragic concordance, Charles committed suicide shortly after the documentary was released.

While Robert turned to sexual perversions and writing to save himself from insanity, his younger brother Max turned to painting and asceticism. Crumb shows him living in bleak circumstance, meditating on a bed of nails, eating near nothing, and devoting his life to sexual chastity after having molested female strangers on the subway in his youth. Due to his portrayal in the documentary, his paintings have taken on a life of their own, and he now supports himself through their sales. One of the film’s most harrowing moments is when Max demonstrates his ritual of swallowing and passing a 30-foot cloth ribbon through his body while seated atop his bed of nails. He is still alive and still lives in San Francisco.

Crumb‘s critical backbone is honesty. It’s a documentary that benefits from the participation of its still-living subject. By the end, we know who Robert Crumb is and the familial hell from which he came. That said, it’s easy to recognize his genius, to acknowledge the contribution he’s made to the world of comics, but it’s not as easy to forgive and accept his misogynist art. I would be remiss not to take I’m to task for it, to accept it as even remotely okay in terms of current gender-role representation. The questions I would ask are, why is the work famous? Why is it popular? Perhaps Robert Crumb has been one of the few talented and brave (re: crazy) enough artists to be honest about what’s on his mind, what haunts the recesses of his perversions. For an outcast kid from a family of depressed tyrants, maybe its all he had. Maybe, when he was being bullied and felt suicidal, his talent, dreams, and horny thoughts were all he had. At seventeen, Robert Crumb decided that becoming a great artist would be his greatest revenge, deciding to reject conforming when life rejected him. His art is complicated, but his story is crystal clear to anyone who’s ever hoped their art would save them.

Here’s the original extended trailer:

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The Film Cult Presents: Return to Oz http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-return-to-oz/ http://www.screenjunkies.com/movies/the-film-cult-presents-return-to-oz/#comments Fri, 07 Mar 2014 18:01:51 +0000 Philip Harris http://www.screenjunkies.com/?p=259999 Decapitation, electroshock therapy...this is a Disney movie??

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WARNING! SPOILERS AHEAD!

I have three vivid memories of watching Return to Oz as a child: once at school, once at a cabin in the woods, and once at my cousin’s house. I remember being sort of scared each time, but I also remember an increasing exhilaration and being totally mesmerized each time I saw it. I was a weird kid. Re-watching the film this week, however, I was mostly just scared. How is this even children’s movie? Within the first ten minutes, a wife is disgusted with her lay-about husband who isn’t rebuilding the family hovel. A ten-year-old girl can’t sleep, a chicken is threatened to lay eggs or die, and said ten-year-old is sent to a clinic for electroshock therapy only to escape and fall into a river during a lightening storm. Let’s not be fooled, dear readers. Even at a PG rating, this is no kids’ movie. Also, it’s hardly a sequel. There are elements that echo The Wizard of Oz, and by “echo“ I mean the fading cries of a lost childhood, but to really see the beauty (yes, beauty) of Return to Oz, director Walter Murch’s only feature film, one must try and see it for what it truly is, a dark comedy of fantastical errors.

But first, we simply can’t ignore the elephant-of-a-different color in the room. Because I’m a living, breathing human being, The Wizard of Oz takes up around 9 percent of my waking consciousness. I can’t get through the day without tripping over references to MGM’s 1939 ultra-classic. There was even a tribute (its millionth) at the Oscars this past Sunday. References sprout up in pop culture all day, every day, and frankly I’m getting sick of it. Return to Oz is a well-deserved rebuke of the Oz-haze American culture has been under since Dorothy dropped a house on the Wicked Witch of the East, taking the sugary mystique of The Wizard of Oz and twisting its nipples into kinky, purple submission. It hurts so bad, yet it’s intriguing and strangely enjoyable.

But, let’s return to Oz. See what I did there? It’s been about six months since the dreaded twister schlepped Dorothy Gale over the rainbow. As you know, with the help of her stolen ruby slippers, she finally returns to the splendor of the Kansas plains. Back home, however, her only real friend is a chicken named Billina. Toto’s been very stand-offish since they got back. Also, she’s having trouble sleeping. That’s when the over-burdened Aunt Em and Uncle Henry decide to give her electroshock therapy, which is clearly the only option.

Alone in her cell at the clinic, Dorothy hears the cries and screams of other patients (foreshadowing the taunts of the wheelers) and the piercing creaks and squeaks of a stretcher’s rusty wheels (again foreshadowing the wheelers.) Her lunch box, which is really just a bucket, is taken from her by Nurse Wilson, who is clad head-to-toe in Victorian black, referencing the original Wicked Witch of the West. Don’t worry about Dorothy’s lunch box being confiscated, though. She finds a tree ripe with them once she gets to Oz and travails the deadly desert which turns any living thing that touches it to sand. The machine administering her electro-therapy is a face, foreshadowing TikTok, Oz’s one-robot army. The vapid ghost girl who appears in Dorothy’s cell to tell her how to escape is holding a jack-o-lantern for no real reason other than to foreshadow Jack the Pumpkinhead who appears later in the movie.

With all these plot seeds planted, all that’s needed is a natural disaster to get Dorothy to Oz. Cue the electrical storm! One lightening strike and a chase through the woods later, Dorothy and the vapid girl ghost fall into a river and survive only by the grace of the floating chicken coup they find in the raging rapids. Dorothy passes out only to awaken in Oz! Tada! Billina, the aforementioned Chicken, has replaced the vapid ghost girl and can now talk, turning into a wise-cracking, sassy sidekick with lines like, “Glad it isn’t fried chicken,” and, “All this way to see a bunch of stiffs.” You can rewatch the movie yourself for the contexts of those gags, which, honestly, are pretty funny.

Dorothy finds her way out of the deadly desert, gets her lunch box from the lunch-box tree (Billina: “What happened to breakfast?”), and she discovers her aunt and uncle’s house the original twister swept away. But, this is no longer Munchkinland. This is a forest, an actual, on-location forest. No more popping technicolor or lolly-pop guilds, just an empty, broken-down house in the middle of the woods. It’s not unlike The Blair Witch Project. Anyway, the yellow brick road has been turned to rubble, and all Dorothy wants at this point is to see the Scarecrow, the Tinman and the Cowardly Lion. Following what’s left of the yellow brick road, she finds herself in the ruins of the Emerald City. Here’s where it begins to really sink in for the viewer. Everything you loved about The Wizard of Oz has been literally destroyed. Return to Oz should have been called The Wizard of Was. It’s in the Emerald City where we meet the Wheelers.

Ah, the Wheelers, those bastions of childhood nightmares. I remember them being scarier. Don’t get me wrong, they’re frightening as hell, but their their costumes are straight out of Solid Gold. Without the wheels they wouldn’t look out of place at the Renaissance Pleasure Faire. That said, they still say things like, “You have to come out sooner or later. And when you do, we’ll tear you into little pieces and throw you in the Deadly Dessert.” Charming. To escape the Wheelers, Dorothy hides in an old storage room where she meets TikTok, the one-robot army of Oz. He’s a kind, steam-punky pile of spheres with no heart and an obligation to protect Dorothy. Of course, he can’t, and they end up in a castle with a headless woman.

Princess Mombi is her name, and decapitating beautiful women is her game. Truly, her big thing is that she has a gallery of heads she interchanges depending on her mood. She’s absolutely terrifying, and her original head (in cabinet 31) is actually Nurse Wilson from the electroshock clinic, played the divine Jean Marsh. Well, Princess Mombi traps Dorothy, Billina, and TikTok in her attic, where she keeps all her antiques. While up there, Dorothy gets really pale and hungry and ends up having sex with her brother. Sorry, wrong movie. More believably, Dorothy meets a stick man with a pumpkin for a head who calls her Mom. To escape, they tie a taxidermy moose head to a sofa, attach to it some palm fronds, and, using Mombi’s powder of life, fly out of the tower and across the Deadly Desert to the mountain palace of the Gnome King.

The Gnome King is angry. You’d be angry too if you were called the Gnome King and there wasn’t a single gnome to be found in all of Oz. He’s had his eye on Dorothy since she arrived, proving that in Return to Oz the hills literally have eyes. The Gnome King, a man made of the mountain rock, is afraid of Billina the chicken, of course, but since she’s hiding out in Jack’s pumpkin head, the rock giant has the all-clear to torment Dorothy with no fear. Dorothy discovers that the Gnome King is responsible for destroying the Emerald City, claiming the emeralds therein really belonged to him. He also has taken the Scarecrow and turned him into a knickknack in his room of curiosities and ornaments. All the villains in this movie are obsessed with objet d’art. In Saw-like fashion, the Gnome King wants to play a game with Dorothy. She has three chances to choose which knickknack is the Scarecrow. If she guesses wrong, she too will be turned into a knickknack. Before she guesses, however, the Gnome King, who reveals he’s in possession of the ruby slippers, offers her the chance to go home and forget everything about Oz. Dorothy, being a ten-year-old girl from the Kansas sticks, gallantly decides to play the king’s game even though it might turn her into a tchotchke imprisoned under a mountain for the rest of time. Given the options, I can’t say I blame her. Naturally, she chooses correctly, the Gnome King freaks out, and Billina saves the day by laying an egg in the Gnome King’s mouth. The vapid ghost girl reappears back in the emerald city, amongst all the celebrations, and reclaims her seat as Ozma, Queen of Oz. With the help of the ruby slippers, which now adorn Queen Ozma’s tootsies, Dorothy returns home to the moderate relief of the Kansas-folk.

While completely insane and totally dismissive of the 1939, beloved classic, Return to Oz, with the right amount of ironic distance, is still a 100% enjoyable experience. Yes, the themes are helter-skleter. Is it about home? Is it about believing in yourself? Is it about friendship? Is it about how the smallest of things (like, an egg) can save the day? Who knows? Who cares? The cinematography is epic, evoking the eerie fantasy-scapes of other eighties classics like Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal. The sound-editing is masterful. Then again, director Walter Murch was first and foremost a sound engineer. Fairuza Balk, whom I’m convinced basically played the same character with PTSD in The Craft, is actually pretty believable as a ten-year-old able to dodge all the movie’s mishegas. While maybe not able to truly hold up to the magic I saw in it as a child, Return to Oz is still a wild ride and a fun time. The next time you and your friends want to take a trip down memory lane and still get a laugh, pick up this cult classic. And let’s face it, a lunch-box tree would be pretty awesome.

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