Friday, December 31, 2010

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

There's more than one way a filmmaker can approach a sequel to a hit movie. You can follow the same formula as the original movie, or try building upon the mythos it created. You could even go the Blair Witch 2 route and do something so completely different that nobody will believe it was actually made at all.

Or you could always aim for self-parody, as Joe Dante did when he made the sequel to his seminal '80s creature feature Gremlins. The sequel was more lighthearted than the original movie, eschewing much of the dark humor for a self-referential silliness that makes it feel like a completely different creature than its predecessor.

It's been a few years since Kingston Falls was decimated by the gremlins, during which time the peaceful mogwai Gizmo (voiced by Howie Mandel) has lived safely in the curio shop where he was initially found. But when the shop's owner dies and the store is demolished, Gizmo is left homeless.

He is eventually found by a geneticist and taken to the laboratories at Clamp Tower, an ultra-modern skyscraper in Manhattan owned by eccentric media mogul Daniel Clamp (John Glover). It's an amazing coincidence, too, as former Kingston Falls residents Billy Peltzer (Zach Galligan) and Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) work in the building as a graphic designer and tour guide.

Billy stumbles upon Gizmo one day and frees him from the lab, leaving the mogwai hidden in his desk until Kate can take him home at the end of her shift. But a broken water fountain sprays Gizmo, spawning a new batch of evil mogwai. And thanks to a combination of the Clamp Tower food court and a triggered sprinkler system, an army of gremlins are soon running loose throughout the building. Trapped inside with them, Billy and Kate must find a way to destroy the gremlins before they can escape Clamp Tower and wreak havoc on the streets of New York City.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is nowhere near as good as the first one. Let's go ahead and get that out of the way right now. It quite simply comes nowhere near its predecessor. But for all the stupid moments and corny jokes and all that jazz, Gremlins 2 is still an hour and a half of dumb fun. The movie's not really all that good, but the fact that it's willing to go to any length to get a laugh is somewhat endearing.

As I said, Gremlins director Joe Dante returns to helm the follow-up, and he's made the odd choice to go from a horror/comedy to a straightforward screwball comedy. The shift in tone between the movies can be a bit off-putting, especially if you watch them back to back. But it's still watchable, however, so it isn't a total waste of time.

But still, Dante does do a fine job in the director's chair. He's armed with a bigger budget, which allows him to approach things on a grander scale. The mogwai and gremlin puppets have been improved upon, and the sets are a lot roomier than the studio backlot from the first movie. (And I still think it's strange that the backlot Gremlins used would later become Hill Valley from Back to the Future). The bigger sets allow for some fantastic cinematography from John Hora; the movie looks great, in large part due to Hora's camerawork.

The problem with it, though, is that you get the feeling that part of the reason the movie was made was so Rick Baker and the gremlin designers could show off. Thanks to Clamp Tower having a genetics lab full of weird experimental serums and concoctions, you get to see all kinds of new gremlins. There's a gremlin with bat wings, a spider gremlin, a gremlin made out of lightning, a gremlin that turns into vegetables, and a metric ton of gremlins in the Clamp Tower lobby singing "New York, New York." I ended up with the impression that the movie's whole point was so Baker could point at the movie and say, "C'mere and look at all the cool stuff me and my crew can do." I don't want to sound like I'm dogging the effects, because they're great. But sometimes I just wanted Dante to focus on something other than showcasing the gremlins.

The screenplay is pretty flawed too. Written by Charles S. Haas, the script is full of nonsensical scenes that don't contribute anything at all to the movie. Take, for example, the scene where the movie breaks the fourth wall, having the gremlins destroy the film in the projection booth, and a theater usher gets Hulk Hogan to scare them into showing the movie again. The scene is funny, but does it have anything to do with anything else?

The same can be said for the Looney Tunes scene at the beginning of the movie. If you haven't seen it, Gremlins 2 opens with Daffy Duck stealing the Warner Brothers logo from Bugs Bunny. The scene has no real purpose, no point, and no reason for the scene to be in the movie at all. But that's the movie's whole shtick: getting humor from random silliness, logic and story be damned.

That's the movie's biggest flaw, too. There's just so much random mayhem going on that anything resembling a plot or a story gets buried underneath a mountain of goofiness. Did the movie really need the moment where the gremlins attack Leonard Maltin while he's giving the original movie a bad review? Maltin even holds up the VHS box of the original Gremlins to further hammer home the point that Gremlins 2 just doesn't care if it makes sense or not. And really, that pretty much sums up the entire movie: It just doesn't care about making sense.

I could go on all day about the stupid crap in the script, but I really should move along to the cast. Reprising the role of our hero is Zach Galligan, who plays the role as well as he did in 1984. Galligan is charming, likable, and entertaining, and he's all aces. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast is sadly forgettable. They're adequate, I guess, but you aren't going to be telling people about the fantastic acting in Gremlins 2. Phoebe Cates is fine and I did like Christopher Lee (I'm still not sure how they roped him into this movie) and Robert Prosky, but my favorite performance came from John Glover. I like Glover a lot anyway, and his work in this particular movie is really funny. It's always weird seeing him do comedic roles after spending six years watching him as a villain on Smallville, but the guy is great. He's so great, in fact, that he practically steals the movie.

And Glover would have, too, if it weren't for the late Tony Randall. Randall plays Brain, a rather verbose hyper-intelligent gremlin. While he only provides the voice, he plays Brain as hammy as he can get. If overacting has a sound, it would be Tony Randall's voice work on Gremlins 2. Quite frankly, it's a glorious example of how sometimes, silliness can actually work.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch is nowhere near the quality of the original movie. Hell, it's barely worth being called "good." But is it fun? Oh yeah, it is. Though all the stupid scenes and jokes that don't really work and pointless nonsense, Gremlins 2 is entertaining enough to be worth a watch. However, I can't give it anything higher than two and a half stars. And even if it does lead to gremlins, I still want to own my own pet mogwai. That'd be awesome.

Final Rating: **½

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Gremlins (1984)

I've been reviewing Christmas movies every December since 2006. And outside of a tiny handful of exceptions, the movies I've reviewed have been, shall we say, "unconventional." I've never been a Miracle on 34th Street kind of guy. Call me nuts, but I've always preferred the crazier Christmas movies. That's why, for 2010, I chose to review Gremlins. Because when you think of Christmas, you think of evil little monsters.

Seriously, though, Gremlins totally counts as a Christmas movie. I dare you to try and convince me it's not. It's also one of the quintessential movies of the '80s. Gremlins is a perfect blend of horror and comedy, and if you're one of the poor souls who've never seen it, allow me to tell you why you should.

It's Christmastime in Kingston Falls, a cozy suburban town called home by amateur inventor Rand Peltzer (Hoyt Axton). I say "amateur" because the gadgets he creates are mostly crap that don't work right. While visiting a curio shop in Chinatown one night, Rand finds a small, furry creature called a Mogwai (voiced by Howie Mandel). However, the shop's elderly owner refuses to let him buy it despite needing the money. The owner's grandson goes behind his back and sells it to Rand in secret, telling him that owning the Mogwai comes with three rules:
  1. Never expose it to bright light, especially sunlight.
  2. Never get it wet.
  3. Never feed it after midnight.

Rand brings the Mogwai home to his adult son, Billy (Zach Galligan), who is thrilled with his new pet. Naming it "Gizmo," Billy forms a quick bond with the little furball. But because of how movies like this go, you know those rules will be broken.

A random accident causes Gizmo to get wet, resulting in several more Mogwai spawning from his back. These Mogwai prove to be far more devious than Gizmo, which is further evidenced when they trick Billy into feeding them after midnight. This causes them to metamorphose into green-skinned creatures with a thirst for anarchy and mayhem. But what began as a few becomes an entire army of gremlins, one focused on creating as much chaos as possible in the streets of Kingston Falls.

I can summarize Gremlins in one word: awesome. It's a spectacular flick that is nothing but fun from start to finish. It's one of those classic '80s movies that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Well, kids above a certain age, that is. Let's not forget that Gremlins is a blend of both comedy and horror, and it doesn't skimp on the horror. Younger children probably shouldn't be watching the movie, even if it does have a PG rating. But nevertheless, Gremlins is still a fantastic movie with a little something for pretty much everybody, and I can't recommend it enough.

At the helm is Joe Dante, who does an admirable job with Gremlins. His direction is great, building an atmosphere that's strangely both dark and lighthearted. I know that sounds conflicting, but it works. It works and it actually makes the movie better. Dante has a ton of elements at his disposal, and he puts all of them to excellent use. Whether it be the moody lighting, John Hora's awesome cinematography, or Jerry Goldsmith's absolutely fantastic music, Dante performs well with what he's got. He uses each of those to build suspense and make the movie pretty darn frightening at times, though he often follows the scares with a bit of humor to lighten the mood. And it boasts a certain sense of adventure and whimsy to it on top of all that, but I guess that's to be expected. Pretty much all of the movie Steven Spielberg produced or directed during the '80s were like that.

The movie was also written by Chris Columbus, who's had a lengthy career writing family movies. I even reviewed two of them during my marathon of Christmas reviews last year. But we're to talk about Gremlins, not Home Alone or Home Alone 2, so I'll say that Columbus's script is quite good. The characters are all likable and amusing in their own ways, with the exception of the evil Mrs. Deagle. She's basically as close to a live-action Cruella de Vil as anyone got before Glenn Close was hired for the 101 Dalmations remake. Mrs. Deagle is a vile, nasty woman who could have made a credible villain on her own. But once the gremlins show up, her story arc pretty much stops, having gone nowhere. I think the only reason Columbus included her in the script at all was so you'd be able to cheer for at least one thing the gremlins do.

I also thought the rules of Mogwai care were a bit too loosely defined, specifically the "no eating before midnight" one. How much of a window past midnight is there before you can feed them? You could make the argument that you couldn't feed them until at least noon, or even at all (since it's technically always after midnight). And which midnight is it? With the different time zones, it would have been after midnight in the rest of the world before it was in Kingston Falls. And what if you cross a time zone line after midnight? Go ten feet across that line and it's still 11:00, so what if you feed a Mogwai there and cross back into the midnight time zone? It's all complicated and weird, and I still get a laugh out of how it was parodied in Gremlins 2.

Speaking of things parodied in the sequel, how about Phoebe Cates's character's monologue about why she doesn't like Christmas? It doesn't serve any sort of purpose, either for the plot or for character development. And it's a real buzzkill, too. The movie was rolling along at a pretty steady pace, making sure everybody's having a good time, then BOOM! This scene happens and kills the momentum dead. It's no fault of Cates's, because she's good in the scene. It's just that it's not only completely irrelevant in regards to the rest of the movie, but it's just too morbid. Gremlins is simple scary fun outside of that one scene, which is just too depressing to fit in with the rest of the movie.

I could spend all day ranting about that scene or the flaws in the three rules, but I don't want to bore you to death. So let's move along to the cast. I really liked Zach Galligan as the movie's primary protagonist; he plays the role with a down-to-Earth charm that makes you like him as soon as he appears onscreen. The same can be said for Phoebe Cates, who was two years removed from her star-making role in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. She plays Billy's girlfriend Kate in Gremlins, and her performance is sweet and engaging. I don't know if her character is really that important to the movie outside of being the token love interest, but Cates is great all the same.

Hoyt Axton also provided a lot of humor as Rand Peltzer, the inventor who constantly tries peddling his creations to people yet fails to realize none of them work right. Axton's earnestness in the role makes him that much more entertaining. Also appearing in the movie is Dick Miller, a character actor who's been in more movies than I could probably count. Of all the movies he appeared in, I believe Gremlins marks his best performance. Miller only has three or four scenes in the movie, but he's a lot of fun in all of them. The rest of the cast have small, thankless roles (including Corey Feldman, of all people), but they're all fantastic too. They each make fine contributions to the movie, and Gremlins is better for them.

And before this review ends, I've got to touch on the special effects it took to create the Mogwai and gremlins. I mean, how could I review a movie about little monsters and not actually talk about the little monsters? Designed by Chris Walas, the creatures were a combination of puppets and animatronics, and they're all amazing. The effects are convincing and believable, even in the brief instances when they look kinda fake. There's just something about the fact that the gremlins and Mogwai are actually on the set interacting with the props and actors that make it that much cooler. I'm not knocking CGI, but I just wish movies would lean towards practical effects whenever they can. There's just something about it that CGI can't touch.

Twenty-six years after its release, Gremlins still holds up as a truly great movie. There's no arguing that at all. Every time I watch it, I come away with a smile on my face because I'd had an hour and 45 minutes of straight-up fun. Each second, from the first to the last, is pure entertainment. And because of that, I'm giving Gremlins four stars and a proud recommendation. I'm still upset, though, that its success led to Hobgoblins. That's just something I can't stomach.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Little Shop of Horrors (1986)

Over the last few decades, it seems like quite a few movies have been turned into stage musicals either on or off Broadway. Let's take a look at the list: The Lion King, Shrek, Elf, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Carrie, and even The Evil Dead. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. But the one that always comes to mind for me is the adaptation of Roger Corman's movie The Little Shop of Horrors.

Brought to life by song composers Alan Menken and Howard Ashman, Little Shop of Horrors began in 1982 as an off-Broadway production that would eventually prove popular enough to move to the big leagues of Broadway. Its success even led to The Geffen Film Company making a cinematic version of the musical in 1986. A movie got turned into a play that got turned into a movie. Yeah. Whether it counts as a remake of Corman's original movie would probably be a matter of personal opinion, but either way, the 1986 version of Little Shop of Horrors is one hell of a great movie.

This time around, the story takes us to New York City's Skid Row, where Audrey Fulqward (Ellen Greene) and klutzy Seymour Krelborn (Rick Moranis) work in a flower shop for Mr. Mushnik (Vincent Gardenia). After an unexpected solar eclipse, Seymour finds a mysterious plant that looks like a Venus Flytrap. He buys the plant and names it "Audrey II" in honor of Audrey, with whom he is secretly smitten (and who is secretly smitten with him). However, Audrey II is wilting, and refuses any traditional plant food. It is only after he accidentally pricks his finger on some thorns that Seymour discovers the plant's appetite for blood.

He displays Audrey II in Mr. Mushnik's shop, which causes the previously failing business to thrive. People come from all around just to see the bizarre little thing. The plant's success even makes Seymour a celebrity, but feeding Audrey II his blood every night has left him weak. Having grown to enormous size and developed the ability to talk, Audrey II (voiced by Levi Stubbs) begins demanding more blood than Seymour can provide. His only other recourse: to feed Audrey II dead bodies. It starts with Audrey's abusive boyfriend (Steve Martin), and snowballs after that. Soon the scope of Audrey II's appetite becomes apparent, with world domination on the menu.

If you want to go ahead and just label Little Shop of Horrors a remake like I choose to, then it serves a proof that remakes don't necessarily have to be bad things. It's personal opinion, of course, but I thought that the musical was an infinitely better movie than Corman's original. It's funnier, more entertaining, better written and acted. I really like the Little Shop of Horrors musical, and would definitely suggest that you run out and rent a copy right now if you have yet to see it.

The movie musical was directed by Frank Oz, who you'll probably recognize as the voices of Yoda, Miss Piggy, and Fozzie Bear. Little Shop of Horrors was his third directorial effort, following The Muppets Take Manhattan and The Dark Crystal (the latter of which he co-directed with Jim Henson). This was Oz's first movie to have no involvement whatsoever from Henson, and I've gotta say that I thought he did an awesome job. This movie has kind of a Tim Burton vibe to it, something that makes it incredibly charming and fun. Oz establishes early on that the movie's not going to take itself seriously, and that silly tone he takes with the movie goes a long way.

I also liked his choice to keep the movie's look tighter and more intimate. Combining Robert Paynter's cinematography with the modest-looking sets on the Warner Bros. backlot, Oz makes his version of Little Shop of Horrors stay true to its off-Broadway roots while adding a cinematic flair to it. The way Oz handles it really makes the movie a lot more entertaining.

But that's not the only thing that makes the movie so much fun. Every element of the movie's production makes its own contribution to the fun. Take, for example, the screenplay penned by Howard Ashman. Ashman originally wrote the script for the off-Broadway production, and his cinematic update of that script is actually really good. It's a drastic improvement over the original movie, with characters that are actually likable. I actually didn't want to crawl into the movie and hit Seymour this time around.

And while I've always liked the 1986 movie's ending more than the original movie's, the movie would have kept the stage production's ending if I'd had my way. It was actually shot and was originally going to conclude the movie, but thanks to meddling executives and unsatisfied focus groups, it was cut. Warner Bros. even recalled the first printing of the DVD because the original ending had been included as a special feature (though that was more due to some legal red tape than anything else). It's a real shame, because giant man-eating plants taking over the world would have been a really memorable (and, dare I say, awesome) way to end a movie.

And as good as the movie is, it helps that the cast is tremendous. The actors are actually one of the movie's strongest parts, to tell you the honest truth. Playing our protagonist is Rick Moranis, whose Seymour is a complete 180-degree turn from the one Jonathan Haze played in 1960. Seymour retains his rather dorky nature, but Moranis's performance is nowhere near as insufferable as Haze was. Moranis is amusing, funny, and entertaining as Seymour, and I can't imagine anyone doing a better job.

Appearing as Audrey is Ellen Greene, reprising the role she played in the stage musical's original production. Greene is wonderful, giving Audrey a likability she was lacking previously. Her squeaky voice — what I'm guessing is a shout out to how Jackie Joseph talked in the '60s Little Shop — might get a wee bit annoying after a while, but it's easily forgiven. Greene's got one hell of a singing voice too. That voice has some power behind it. If I'd been watching the movie with a high-end surround sound system, she'd have probably rattled all the walls in my house.

The rest of the cast is great too, with funny cameos from John Candy and Bill Murray being among the highlights. Vincent Gardenia is also good, and I loved Steve Martin as the sadistic dentist. His overacting here is absolutely hilarious, and it's a real bummer that he only has three scenes, because he's a blast to watch. And in the role of Audrey II is Levi Stubbs from the legendary Motown group The Four Tops. Stubbs plays the role with attitude, making Audrey II both evil and cool. His voice acting is superb, and I'm happy he was hired.

And last but far from least are the songs, composed by Ashman and Alan Menken. All but two or three songs appeared in the stage musical, which is a shame since it left "Mean Green Mother From Outer Space" as the one that got a Best Original Song Oscar nomination when it's not even the best song in the movie. But anyway, Ashman and Menken's songs are fantastic. They're all really catchy, and can easily get stuck in your head. And considering that the movie's a musical, I'd say that's a pretty big compliment. The cast also does a great job with the singing parts, each of them sounding fantastic.

If this review hasn't made it glaringly obvious yet, I love Little Shop of Horrors. I can't say enough good things about it. Even hearing the songs is enough to put a smile on my face. With its fun attitude, catchy music, and engaging acting, it's a movie that's hard to hate. So on the usual scale, I'm going to give Little Shop of Horrors four stars and my seal of approval. Do yourself a favor and check it out if you have yet to, because it's all kinds of awesome.

Final Rating: ****

Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

Start listing nominees for the title of "the king of B-movies," and Roger Corman's name will have to be near the top. He's been involved with hundreds of movies during his lengthy career, whether it be as a writer, producer, or director. He's also been credited with helping launch the careers of numerous A-list actors and directors. But as a filmmaker, one of his most well-known movies was his 1960 monster movie The Little Shop of Horrors. It's been overshadowed by the musical it inspired over the last few decades, and really, maybe that's for the best.

Our story takes us to Skid Row in Los Angeles, where Gravis Mushnick (Mel Welles) runs a flower shop. The shop doesn't get much business, but his two employees — Seymour Krelboin (Jonathan Haze) and Audrey Fulquard (Jackie Joseph) — enjoy it there. Unfortunately, Seymour is fired after messing up one too many arrangements.

Desperate to keep his job, Seymour reveals to Mr. Mushnick that he has developed his own plant, crossbred from a butterwort and a Venus Flytrap. Though the plant, which Seymour has named "Audrey Jr.," looks sickly at first, Mr. Mushnick is intrigued by its uniqueness and gives Seymour one week to have it ready to be display it in the store.

But as the days start to pass, Seymour is disheartened to find that Audrey Jr. is unresponsive to plant food. It isn't until he pricks his finger on a thorn that he realizes Audrey Jr. craves blood. He begins a nightly routine of feeding the plant blood from his fingertips, as people flock from all around to see it.

But Audrey Jr. starts growing at an alarming rate, even developing the ability to speak (as voiced by Charles B. Griffith). Audrey Jr. demands more blood, but Seymour has become anemic from his constant bloodletting. Faced with little other recourse, Seymour begins feeding it dead bodies for sustenance.

The Little Shop of Horrors is typical '60s Roger Corman. Shot over two days and a night with recycled sets and a budget of 30,000 dollars, the movie is about as cheaply made as you could expect. It's got a wealth of cheesy acting and hackneyed writing, lame sets and lamer special effects. But it's got a weird charm to it that makes likable in a bizarre way, even if the movie isn't really all that good. I don't know what makes it that way, but I'll try to find out through this review.

Corman sits at the helm of this little picture, and the way he makes the movie, you can see why someone would try adapting it for the stage. The movie is made in such a way that it feels like Corman simply filmed the actors performing a play. The simple cinematography and cheap sets and props really give it that feeling too.

And in watching the movie, I started noticing scenes would just prattle on for several minutes at a time with little to no satisfactory payoff. Take Jack Nicholson's scene, for example. It doesn't have anything to do with any other part of the movie, other than extending the running time. Actually, more than a few scenes feel like useless padding. The movie's only 72 minutes long, and if you removed all the padding and useless scenes, you could probably whittle it down to an hour. Maybe even 45 minutes if you're feeling brave.

But let's move along to the script, written by Charles B. Griffith. The movie is promoted as a black comedy and actually features precious little of the titular "horrors." But unfortunately, I just didn't think the movie was all that funny. It just didn't do anything for me. I mean, did it really need that recurring Dragnet parody? Did that Jack Nicholson scene need to drag on for so long if it had to be in the movie at all? Were all the scenes with Seymour's hypochondriac mother and the stupid "who's on first?" routines absolutely essential to the movie? My argument is no on all counts. If I may summarize, Griffith's script is lacking in humor, likable characters, and dialogue that goes anywhere.

But let's wrap up this review by continuing onward to the acting. My honest opinion is that pretty much every actor in the movie is either annoying or just plain bad. I really had to struggle to even so much as tolerate the cast. I know I should expect such acting out of a Roger Corman movie, but come on now. I will give credit where credit is due and say I though Mel Welles was amusing enough. But the rest of the cast simply got on my nerves.

I went into The Little Shop of Horrors expecting it to be 72 minutes of dumb fun. It was certainly 72 minutes long and it was certainly dumb, but I'm not entirely sure about the fun part. It wasn't just my kind of movie. That's disappointing too, because I loved the remake. The original Little Shop of Horrors is, sadly, just kinda lame. I'm going to give it two stars and leave it at that. It's too bad they had to wait two and a half decades before Seymour would feed us a good movie.

Final Rating: **

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reefer Madness (1936)

Picking a movie to review for this blog doesn't take a whole lot of effort. A lot of the time, it's just as simple as me stumbling across a movie and thinking it might be fun to write about. But there's been the rare occasion where I'll see a movie and realize that not only am I a fool for having watched more than ten minutes of it, but that I just had to post something about it.

Such was the case with Reefer Madness. Yes, the legendary anti-marijuana propaganda movie from the '30s. I'd have probably never bothered watching it at all if Netflix didn't carry a DVD of Reefer Madness featuring a satirical commentary from the RiffTrax crew. And I'm a sucker for RiffTrax, if anything, so I rented the DVD and couldn't believe my eyes. I was simply amazed at just how terrible the movie is. So let's dig into Reefer Madness and I'll try explaining just how bad it really is.

The movie quickly introduces us to Mae Coleman (Thelma White) and Jack Perry (Carleton Young), a pair of pot dealers. While neither have any moral problems with peddling their illegal wares, they disagree on who their target market should be. Mae prefers to sell only to adults who know what they're getting into, while Jack goes out of his way to push it on teenagers.

Helping Jack are Ralph (Dave O'Brien) and Blanche (Lillian Miles), who act as Jack's go-betweens by inviting high schoolers and college students to house parties so Jack can make a few sales. It is at one of these parties that the lives of several characters begin spiraling out of control.

When a young man named Bill (Kenneth Craig) attends one of these parties and gets roped into the world of marijuana, his grades start slipping, and he stops interacting with his parents and friends. He even starts having a few rounds in the bedroom with Blanche. His girlfriend Mary (Dorothy Short) arrives at Mae and Jack's apartment looking for him, but ends up being taken advantage of by Ralph. Bill, stoned out of his mind, stumbles into the room and attacks Ralph. Jack tries breaking things up and in the ensuing fight, Mary is shot and killed. Things only start going downhill from there, all because of that damnable reefer.

I've never smoked weed, nor do I ever plan to. But even if I did, I could tell you that Reefer Madness is a tremendously stupid movie. It's grossly inaccurate, for starters, and it's lacking in anything that even remotely resembles common sense. I know that most of these propaganda movies don't exactly care about the facts, but Reefer Madness is particularly bad about it. And it's just a bad movie in general, too.

Helming this little project is a guy named Louis Gasnier, a French filmmaker whose work I'm unfamiliar with. And I'll probably stay unfamiliar with it, since Reefer Madness is the only one of his movies I've actually heard of. The real problem with Gasnier's direction, besides the terrible editing, is that the movie is just plain boring. The movie is supposed to be a prime example of unintentional camp, but it took all of my effort to pay attention to the damn thing. I was continually looking at the clock, trying to gauge how much time was left. Bad movies are one thing, but boring bad movies are insufferable.

The acting is far from good, too. None of the actors in this are worth watching, to put it bluntly. I can get over the so-called "teenage" actors all looking like they're in their 30s, but their lack of talent or even the ability to try being convincing is annoying. There's not one performance in this thing to tell you about. I couldn't even find a single, solitary well-acted scene or well-delivered line of dialogue. It's just pathetic.

But the worst element of the whole thing is the script. The badly written, totally ignorant script. Credited to Arthur Hoerl from an "original story" by Lawrence Meade, the script is about as braindead as you can get. The fact of the matter is that the only reason Reefer Madness is a cult classic at all is because of how misinformed it is about marijuana (or as the movie spells it, "marihuana"). The script actually includes dialogue about how weed is more dangerous than heroin. No kidding, the movie tries to make the argument that marijuana is worse for you than heroin. There's no way they could be serious, because that's an outright lie. Not only that, but the movie depicts marijuana use as having consequences that no pothead I've ever met has suffered. I'm astounded by just how wrong the movie is.

For quite some time, Reefer Madness has been touted as a campy exploitation movie that borders on the salacious. Turns out its reputation has been overblown. The movie is a terrible waste of time, one that is only enjoyable if you've smoked a whole pound of weed. While Reefer Madness is the movie's most famous title (it was originally called Tell Your Children and was given multiple titles on the exploitation movie circuit), crap is still crap no matter what you call it. And thus, Reefer Madness gets one star and I ask that you just not watch it. This overrated mess could use a little less attention.

Final Rating: *

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

As a horror fan with access to the Internet, I've been privy to some of the weirdest, most disturbing ideas that one could possibly come up with. Think up the grossest thing you can, and someone has probably used it in a horror movie. But perhaps the craziest of all the stuff I've seen is a movie titled The Human Centipede (First Sequence). I first heard the title and the movie's concept back in April when IFC Films picked up the movie and gave it a very small theatrical release, and that was enough to convince me that there's probably very little out there that could top it in the way of sheer oddness.

I didn't want to see it. I was afraid to even get near it. I'd see the DVD at Walmart (of all places!) and cringe every time I'd look at it. But after a while, the curiosity got the best of me. I was going to be brave and actually watch the movie that I'd initially believed was just too weird for me to stomach. I had to sit down and watch The Human Centipede on Netflix. It's a movie that doesn't feel like it should possibly exist, but it does. It does exist, and I've seen it. And I have to tell you about it.

As the movie gets rolling, we're introduced to Lindsay (Ashley C. Williams) and Jenny (Ashlynn Yennie), a pair of vacationing New Yorkers on a road trip across Europe. They get lost in the middle of nowhere while driving to a party in Germany, and their misfortune is only compounded when they end up with a flat tire. With no cell phone service and no passersby willing to offer help, Lindsay and Jenny are stuck hiking through the woods in search of assistance.

They eventually arrive at the home of Dr. Josef Heiter (Dieter Laser), who was once one of Germany's most respected surgeons. His specialty was separating conjoined twins, but the good doctor has elected to take a new career path. He drugs Lindsay and Jenny, taking them to his laboratory where they will be part of his latest experiment. Dr. Heiter's plan: to stitch the girls and a Japanese tourist named Katsuro (Akihiro Kitamura) together mouth-to-anus to create the titular human centipede.

What you've just read is the basic plot of The Human Centipede. I'm not making any of that up. I couldn't in a million years. I can't say I'm surprised that someone came up with the idea for the movie; we've all had crazy thoughts on occasion. But what blows my mind is that somebody actually went and created the movie. They wrote it, talked investors into giving them money, hired a cast and crew, bought equipment with which to film and edit it, got a theatrical distribution deal through IFC Films, and somehow even got Roger Ebert to write about it. It's a movie about a mad scientist that sews people together ass-to-mouth just to see if he could do it!

The Human Centipede was the brainchild of Tom Six, a Dutch filmmaker with only three prior credits to his name. He wrote, produced, co-edited, and directed this wacky little adventure into the realm of body horror, so if there's anybody to blame and/or applaud (depending on your opinion of the movie), it's Tom Six. As far as direction goes, Six's work actually isn't that bad at all. It's actually pretty good. The movie flows well, with tight editing and wonderful cinematography from Goof De Koning. Six isn't playing around, though, because he goes to great lengths to establish an uncomfortable atmosphere. He could have gone campy with it, but outside of the occasional bit of overacting the movie's as serious as you could get. Combining the cinematography with the concept and the creepy music (well, creepy ambient noise, to be more honest) composed by Patrick Savage and Holeg Spier, Six puts together a movie that's almost too creepy and bizarre for its own good.

It's at this point in the review that I critique the script, but I'm not sure I see the need to. Six's screenplay is actually rather inconsequential. There's no story to be found here, just the movie's basic concept. There's so little story, I wouldn't be surprised if Six just wrote a simple outline of what he wanted to happen and had the actors ad-lib it all. But considering what this movie was about, expecting a story makes about as much sense as a screen door on a submarine. You don't go into a movie called The Human Centipede expecting Hemmingway.

So let's just move on to the cast. And if you're expecting any sort of performance review for the actors playing the human centipede, you're not gonna get much. Akihiro Kitamura screams yells a lot and that's pretty much it, while Ashley C. Williams and Ashlynn Yennie are painfully annoying in the scenes where they have dialogue. They're so irritating that the idea of having their mouths sewn onto someone's ass actually sounded pretty good. At least you only have to put up with their shrill blabbering for half an hour before they finally shut up for good.

If you're going to watch The Human Centipede for the acting, you're going to want to pay attention to Dieter Laser. Not only does he have an awesome name, but his overacting is tremendous. He alternates between scary and off-putting to over-the-top insane, and is honestly a lot of fun. And while I was watching the movie, I had a thought: Laser looks and sounds like a weird hybrid of Udo Kier and Tommy Wiseau, so I want to see some ambitious filmmaker come up with a reason to have all three of them team up together, like a remake of ¡Three Amigos! or a Marx Brothers homage or something. That would be the most awesome thing ever.

But no matter what this review says, you've already made your mind up. You've developed your opinion of The Human Centipede just by reading the title and the plot synopsis. And really, there's no need to critique any part of it, as it's not so much a movie as it is an idea. Anything could have happened in the movie, and it still would have been a horror flick about three people stitched together in a humiliating fashion. That's all you really need to know about it. You'll either see it or you won't, and this review just won't matter. And judging by what I've seen online, the "(First Sequence)" subtitle means only one thing: more human centipedes. Indeed, Tom Six is actually working on a sequel as we speak, aiming for to release it next year. I'm actually afraid of how that will turn out.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, November 22, 2010

Judge Dredd (1995)

Go through my archives and you might notice that the overwhelming majority of the comic book movies I've reviewed were inspired by American comics. While Marvel and DC have the most representation in my past reviews, even the smaller companies whose material was translated into movies I've reviewed are from the United States. But American comics aren't the only ones that can be adapted into movies. England's even gotten into the act a couple of times. One such occasion came in 1995 with the release of Judge Dredd.

The titular character made his first appearance in 1977, within the pages of the second issue of famed British anthology comic 2000 AD. Created by John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra (who borrowed the title from a horror comic conceived but abandoned by 2000 AD editor Pat Mills), Judge Dredd has spent the last three decades serving as 2000 AD's most popular recurring character. Hollywood took notice and turned Judge Dredd into a movie, but like nearly all comic book movies from the middle of the '90s, it was mediocre at best.

Sometime over the course of the next 990 years, the world goes straight down the crapper. The planet has become a desolate wasteland, with the majority of the human race being corralled into enormous "Mega-Cities." And in these Mega-Cities, the crime rate has skyrocketed to unconscionable levels. In response, the traditional justice system has been replaced by the Judges. They are the police, court system, and executioners all rolled into one, given the power to arrest, convict, and sentence criminals on the spot.

In Mega-City One, the most famous Judge of them all is Joseph Dredd (Sylvester Stallone). Dredd's unwavering devotion to the law and the lack of leniency he shows towards criminals have become the stuff of legend, earning him the respect of young cadets and the fear of the general public.

But when a news reporter critical of Dredd is murdered, all the evidence points directly at our hero being the culprit. The bullets retrieved from the reporter's body are traced back to Dredd's "lawgiver," a customized handgun that uses DNA identification to make it operable only in the hands of the Judge it is assigned to. In light of this, Dredd is found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment at a penal colony in Aspen.

With Dredd out of the way, it opens the door for Rico (Armand Assante) — a psychotic ex-Judge who had framed Dredd for the reporter's murder — to cause havoc in Mega-City One by massacring Judges right and left. Dredd must find a way to return to the city, clear his name, and judge Rico for his many crimes.

I can't say I know a lot about Judge Dredd. I've never even seen an issue of 2000 AD, let alone actually read one. I could memorize his Wikipedia article and still feel like I know nothing. But what I do know is enough to convince me that Judge Dredd has the potential to make a kick-ass movie. But this movie does not live up to that potential. It's dumb, silly, and never reaches a plateau higher than mediocrity.

The movie was directed by Danny Cannon, who has spent the bulk of his career working on episodes of CSI and CSI: Miami. His film career hasn't been that notable, though, with the only other movie on his résumé that I recognize is I Still Know What You Did Last Summer. Cannon's work with Judge Dredd is actually pretty good, but it's not without its flaws. For one, he doesn't do much to separate it from the dozens of other futuristic action movies from the mid-'90s. It doesn't help that some of the digital effects are less than convincing, and the green screen work is just plain bad.

Cannon still makes a good go of it, though. For all those flaws, he manages to keep the movie at a steady pace and does his best to keep it from getting boring. He also gets some nice cinematography from Adrian Biddle and great music from Alan Silvestri. So at least there's something good about the movie, right?

But things start getting really bad when you take a look at the script. The script for Judge Dredd is lousy, no two ways about it. It's credited to William Wisher and Stephen E. de Souza from a story by Wisher and former New Line Cinema executive Michael De Luca, which is your first sign of trouble. It's not Wisher or De Luca that troubles me, but de Souza. I know he's written good movies, but after Street Fighter, seeing him listed in a movie's credits always fills me with a certain sense of dread.

Like I said, Judge Dredd's script is bad with a capital B. The story is threadbare, the dialogue is forgettable, and the jokes aren't really that funny. (The "I knew you'd say that" running gag is really lame, too.) The worst part of it is Fergee, a supporting character that ends up tagging along with Dredd during most of the movie. He's supposed to be the comic relief, but I don't see what's so damn funny about him. Fergee's transition from comics was a really rough one, because the character is useless and only serves as a way to make me hate an otherwise passable movie. I kept waiting for Dredd to just shoot him or leave him somewhere to die, and it never happened!

And rounding out my review is the cast. In the title role is Sylvester Stallone, who didn't exactly have the best of luck when it came to picking movies in the '90s. For every Demolition Man, Cliffhanger, and Cop Land, there were more like Rocky V, Daylight, and Stop! Or My Mom Will ShootJudge Dredd was just another entry onto the list of less-than-stellar Stallone movies from the decade. His performance here isn't as bad as some people say, though. It's most definitely not his best role, but it's far from his worst too. Stallone is pretty much playing every stereotype you'd expect from him, and that's entertaining enough for me.

Meanwhile, Armand Assante is gloriously over-the-top as our villain du jour. He's absolutely unrestrained, chewing the scenery every second he's on the screen. Assante is a heck of a lot of fun, if anything. Among the supporting cast, Diane Lane appears as Judge Hershey, the closest thing Dredd has to a friend. Her performance is a little bland, which is unfortunate considering how talented she is. The problem is that the role is so underdeveloped and uninteresting that Lane would have been hard-pressed to come up with a positive contribution.

The worst part of the cast, though, comes from Rob Schneider as the aforementioned Fergee. I noted that the character is supposed to be the comic relief, but he's the exact opposite of funny. Schneider is more annoying than anything, to the point that you'll wish you could beat the crap out of him if you ever got the chance. The character is awful, as is Schneider. But then, it's the same old Rob Schneider you'd see in every other movie he's ever been in. And I'm actually convinced that the only reason he ever gets any work at all nowadays is because Adam Sandler keeps letting him tag along to movie sets.

I know I've said a few negative things about Judge Dredd. But it isn't that bad. It's a decent enough time killer, something to turn on during a rainy day and just zone out. Of all the cheesy action movies out there, you really could do a lot worse than this. So I'm going to give Judge Dredd two and a half stars, bordering on three. And here's hoping that the Judge Dredd movie that's currently in production (with a planned 2012 release) will improve upon this one.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, November 19, 2010

Tron (1982)

Not all cult films have need to have the same massive audiences that The Rocky Horror Picture Show enjoys. Others can develop their own devoted fanbases through means beyond repeated midnight showings. Some become what they are through nostalgia, with fans who loved it in their youth and still loving it when they rediscover it in adulthood. One of these movies is Tron, a movie that I often heard about, that I'd been told was awesome more than once, but never actually had the desire to see.But with a sequel being released next month, and the fact that it's been on my DVR since July and I still haven't watched it, I might as well go ahead and finally see what all the fuss over Tron is about.

Meet Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a once-successful software programmer for the ENCOM Corporation. He created several video games for ENCOM, but his work was stolen by another programmer named Ed Dillinger (David Warner). Dillinger passed off Flynn's games as his own and earned a series of promotions that eventually made him a high-ranking executive. Flynn, on the other hand, was fired from the company and stuck having to open a small arcade populated by the games that were stolen from him.

In the three years since then, Flynn has spent much of his time trying to hack into ENCOM's systems and find evidence that Dillinger ripped him off. He's eventually locked out of the system by the Master Control Program (voiced by Warner), a self-aware artificial intelligence developed by ENCOM that has been absorbing other programs from around the world to make itself more powerful. He finally gets into the system with a little help from friends and current ENCOM employees Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan).

But the MCP isn't going to take this lying down. It zaps Flynn with a prototype laser, one that breaks down objects in the real world and reconstructs them within ENCOM's mainframe. Flynn arrives in a digitized world and is immediately taken prisoner, forced into gladiatorial combat against other programs in the system. He forges an alliance with some of these programs to overthrow the dictatorial MCP and return to the real world.

I don't know if Tron is as awesome as it had been described to me. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad movie at all. It's actually pretty entertaining. But I just didn't feel that it lived up to all the hype. The biggest flaw with Tron is how dated it feels. The visuals have not aged well at all. But you have to remember that CGI was very primitive back in 1982. After almost three decades of evolution in the field, the effects in Tron are gonna look a little hokey.

However, if you look at it from 1982 standards instead of 2010 standards, it's actually pretty impressive. As far as styles go, it's like an '80s version of what Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller did with Sin City; the actors were filmed in black and whote in front of a black backdrop, with pretty much everything else filled in digitally. Director Steven Lisberger does an admirable job of combining each of the elements at his disposal to craft a rather imaginative piece of work. You'd never know that Tron was Lisberger's first live-action feature film, judging by how good it's put together.

Though digital effects have obviously evolved by leaps and bounds over the last three decades, Lisberger's direction makes the movie engaging and fun nonetheless. It's a captivating movie, one that you can't turn away from. Lisberger shows a lot of talent through his crafting of it. And really, it's a shame that his career dwindled so rapidly after Tron, because I'd like to see what he could do with updated technology. (Then again, I guess that's what Tron's sequel could be for.)

I also liked the movie's score composed by Wendy Carlos. The music admittedly does sound cheesy nowadays, but it works great for Tron. It goes a long way in establishing the movie's tone and atmosphere. And really, isn't that what all good movie soundtracks are supposed to do?

I didn't think Lisberger's script was anything special, though. The dialogue is forgettable, and outside of the "journey into cyberspace" aspect, the characters are just there (with only Flynn, Sark, and the MCP standing out), the story isn't anything that hadn't been seen before. It's really the whole computer world thing that makes Tron's script any different from all the other sci-fi movies of the '80s. I know I'll probably catch hell from at least one Tron fan for saying that, but that's just how I see it.

Wrapping us up is the acting, which is very good all across the board. The bulk of the heavy lifting, though, is done courtesy of Jeff Bridges and David Warner. Both of them are fantastic, as close to perfect as they could get. Bridges is especially good, playing his role with a confidence and swagger that makes his character believable. He's very amiable, and the movie is better for his presence. Warner does some fine work himself as not one, not two, but three characters. He's Dillinger, the voice of the Master Control Program, and Sark, the MCP's primary henchman. Dillinger only has a handful of scenes, and the MCP voice isn't much, so you'll mainly see him as Sark. And his performance as Sark is impressive, giving the movie the effective villain it needs.

Tron is one of those movies that was way ahead of his time. It was so ahead of its time, in fact, that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refused to nominate it for any special effects Oscars because it viewed the use of computer graphics as "cheating." And while I said I didn't think it was as awesome I'd been led to believe, it's still an immensely entertaining movie. I can't lie, I thought it was cool. So Tron earns three and a half stars on my usual scale, and I'd definitely recommend it to anybody who hasn't seen it yet. Here's hoping that Tron: Legacy is as good.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, November 15, 2010

Maximum Overdrive (1986)

Stephen King has long been considered one of the premier names in horror literature. But the movie adaptations of his books have always been hit or miss. Mostly miss, to be honest. For every one like The Shawshank Redemption, there have been five like Pet Sematary Two. There's some, though, that weren't bad, just mediocre. One was Maximum Overdrive, an adaptation of King's 1973 short story "Trucks." But while the movie is average at best, it's memorable in that it marks the one and only directorial effort by King himself.

As the movie begins, we learn that Earth passed through the tail of a rogue comet on June 19, 1987, where it would remain for just over a week. However, the negative effects of this astrological anomaly are felt almost immediately. Machines of all types — vehicles, appliances, vending machines, even things as mundane as hair dryers, toys, and Walkmen — have become sentient, all of them flying into an anti-human homicidal frenzy.

In the town of Willamette, North Carolina, a group of murderous 18-wheelers have trapped a small handful of survivors inside a roadside truck stop. When the trucks, communicating via Morse code through their horns, demand to be refueled, the humans come to the horrific realization that the machines wish to enslave them.

Billy Robinson (Emilio Estevez), the truck stop's fry cook, tries rallying the survivors. Armed with a cache of weapons his boss kept hidden in the diner's basement, Billy begins formulating a plan to lead them to safety. But with the prevalence of machinery, where would they go that would be safe?

Maximum Overdrive is one of those movies that boasts an awesome concept yet leaves a lot to be desired. I don't want to call it a bad movie per se, but it's just kinda average at best. It's a movie that, if placed in the hands of a writer and director with more experience, would have been awesome.

I still can't believe that Stephen King actually made this movie. I guess he figured if people were going to do movie versions of his work, he might as well join the party and see what all the fuss was about. It's obvious that he'd never made a movie before, as his experience as both a director and a screenwriter shows. His direction isn't that bad, but it feels rough around the edges. He tends to use some of the same camera moves, angles, and techniques over and over, a repetition that gets tiring after a while. (His overuse of that really bad knockoff of the shower music from Psycho doesn't help things either.)

There are a few moments where King shows a little brilliance, though. Specifically, I mean the opening sequence on the bridge and the scene where the soda machine kills the Little League coach. Both of those scenes are awesome, King making the most of them. It's a shame the rest of the movie couldn't be like that, though.

King's script isn't much better. The short story the movie was based on was just that: short. It's roughly ten or fifteen pages long. There was no way King (or anyone else) could turn it into a feature-length movie without a ton of padding or extra material, and that's exactly what happened. The problem is that there's still not enough to carry a 97-minute running time. It just runs out of gas (no pun intended) after a certain point.

It's just really tedious. The lame characters, the stupid dialogue, the scenes that don't go anywhere; they'll just wear you out. Maximum Overdrive would have been a lot more effective as an episode of a horror anthology TV show. It's too late to change that now, but if somebody wants to resurrect Tales from the Crypt or Masters of Horror, a remake of Maximum Overdrive could make for a great episode. But for all of King's successes as a novelist, a screenwriter he is not.

And then there's the cast, which is a bit on the disappointing side. Playing the lead role is Emilio Estevez, whose performance isn't too bad. The role isn't a very strong one, and Estevez doesn't seem to be trying very hard, but at least he's watchable. That's more than I can say for some of the other people in the cast is forgettable. Only a few actors are even worth mentioning at all. One of them is the late Pat Hingle, who is wasted playing such a crummy character. What sucks about Hingle's performance is that he's clearly the wrong guy to be playing a sleazy redneck. If the writing had been a bit better, he wouldn't have been so bad.

And how about Yeardley Smith? She's most famous as the voice of Lisa Simpson, but before The Simpsons had ever been featured on The Tracey Ullman Show, she appeared in Maximum Overdrive. And I honestly wish she hadn't because Smith is terrible. She's nothing short of awful, with the most annoying voice to ever come out of anyone's mouth. Smith can't say more than one syllable without it sounding like a screeching cat, and the fact that her character spends pretty much every scene whining and complaining, it only gets worse as the movie progresses. She's right up there with Dropo from Santa Claus Conquers the Martians on my list of characters who make me want to climb into the movie and strangle them.

At least the movie has an awesome soundtrack courtesy of legendary rock band AC/DC. No less than seven of their songs appear in the movie, with their album Who Made Who serving as the movie's soundtrack. You can't go wrong with AC/DC, so if Maximum Overdrive got one thing right, it's the music.

I might sound like I'm really ripping the movie apart, but Maximum Overdrive isn't that bad. It's still an entertaining B-movie. I mean, it's a movie about a bunch of 18-wheelers that come to life and kill people, and it was directed by Stephen King, for crying out loud. The movie isn't going to be good by any means, but it's pure dumb fun. Though I'm only giving it two and a half stars, I will say that if you enjoy cheesy movies from the '80s, you could do worse than Maximum Overdrive.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Back to the Future Part III (1990)

I've already reviewed Back to the Future and Back to the Future Part II, so where else is there for me to go? The answer is simple: Back to the Future Part III. Filmed back-to-back with Part II and released six months after its predecessor, the third and final chapter in the Back to the Future saga takes much of the trilogy's formula and transplants it into the Old West. Because why only send Marty back or forward in time thirty years like in the first two movies, when you could have him go a hundred years instead? But regardless of my jokes, Part III is a great flick and a fun way to conclude this amazing trilogy.

When we last saw Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), he watched in horror as a bolt of lightning struck the DeLorean, causing it and Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) to vanish and leaving Marty stranded in 1955. Marty's only clue to what happened arrives in the form of a 70-year-old letter that Doc himself had written and left for him. In the letter, Doc reveals that the lightning bolt sent him to 1885, where the antiquated technology has left him unable to repair the damaged time machine. He has included with his letter a map pointing Marty to where he'd hidden the DeLorean along with detailed instructions on how to fix it using equipment from 1955. But he urges Marty not to come back for him, as he is content to spend the rest of his days in the Old West as Hill Valley's resident blacksmith.

However, a sudden revelation leaves Marty unable to heed Doc's advice. After he and Doc's 1955 counterpart retrieve the DeLorean from the abandoned mine where it had been hidden, Marty stumbles upon Doc's tombstone. He was in 1885, so he was bound to die sometime over the course of seven decades, right? It wouldn't be a problem, but according to the tombstone, Doc died just six days after the letter was written, having been shot and killed by notorious outlaw Buford "Mad Dog" Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) over a petty squabble.

Unable to accept that his friend was senselessly murdered, Marty uses the repaired time machine to head back to 1885 and save him. But things get a little hairy when an accident upon his arrival in the past damages the DeLorean's fuel line and leaves the car crippled. With Doc's death looming, they must find a way to somehow get the car up to 88 miles per hour before he meets the business end of a bullet. That is, if Doc doesn't get too distracted by his new girlfriend, local schoolmarm Clara Clayton (Mary Steenburgen).

I've got to admit that Part III isn't my favorite chapter of the trilogy. It's not like it's a bad movie, it's actually pretty good. I just felt that it was too much like the first movie. Look at it like this: Marty goes back in time and meets up with Doc. The duo needs to fix the DeLorean and return to 1985 before something bad happens at the end of the week. Throw in a dance scene and a few other familiar moments and elements, and it's practically the first movie in the Old West.

But hey, it's still a fun flick and a wonderfully grand finale for the trilogy. It helps that, since both sequels were filmed back-to-back, much of the cast and crew were able to return. It just wouldn't be a Back to the Future movie without the usual suspects. This includes Robert Zemeckis, the director that helped steer the franchise towards its iconic status. Zemeckis's work with Part III is just as great as it was on the first two. He has a knack for making movies feel warm and whimsical even in dire scenes, and this movie is no exception. Though the Old West setting creates a far-different Hill Valley that one would be used to, it still feels like the same place thanks to the direction. It is lively, energetic, and all kinds of enjoyable. After growing up with the franchise, I can't imagine anyone else directing these movies. A Back to the Future movie without Robert Zemeckis would just feel wrong.

I should also take the time to applaud Alan Silvestri for once again contributing an absolutely amazing score for the movie. I know I didn't mention him in my review of Part II, but Silvestri's music for the sequels is fantastic. His score for Part III is particularly good. It has an appropriately Western sound to it, excellently contributing to the feel of the movie.

And not only do Zemeckis and Silvestri come back for Part III, but so does writer Bob Gale. I noted before that the movie feels like a retooled copy of the first one. That's not entirely a bad thing, though, as it lends the movie a sense of familiarity and serves as a way to bring the trilogy full circle. A lot of the franchise's running gags are either brought back or played with, and Gale makes a game effort of tying up the loose ends left over from Part II.

And in all honesty, the Old West setting really changes how the whole "fish out of water" thing is done. Visiting 1955 or 2015 is one thing, but for Marty to be stick a full century in the past? That'd have to be a real mind screw. Gale handles the new setting well, having a blast pointing out anachronisms like the Nike sneakers and ugly '50s-era cowboy getup that he's wearing when he arrives in 1885, and his use of '80s slang after discovering a pie plate he threw at Mad Dog Tannen bears the "Frisbee" name. His jokes continue to be funny, and he once again presents the characters in such a way that you can't help but care about them. Gale's writing is as strong as it was in the first two Back to the Future movies, and it shows.

Last but most certainly not least is the movie's cast. Playing the lead role for the third and final time is Michael J. Fox, who is once again perfect. After seeing Fox play Marty three times, I'm convinced that there's no way Eric Stoltz could have ever topped him. Fox is tremendous, not only as Marty but as Marty's great-great-grandfather Seamus. The Irish accent Fox adopts as Seamus is a bit over the top, but he makes the character endearing. And at least Fox didn't have to dress in drag like he did in Part II's 2015 scenes.

In the role of Doc Brown, Christopher Lloyd is again fantastic. He's made the character so much more than just an actor playing a part, turning Doc into one of the franchise's greatest elements. Lloyd is hilarious as Doc, and the introduction of a love interest into the character's arc gives him a chance to have a little pathos too. He tackles that like a champ, proving that Lloyd can do more than act wacky.

Thomas F. Wilson also returns, playing the great-grandfather of his famous character Biff. Seeing Wilson playing an uncouth, violent cowboy is a lot of fun, though I do miss seeing him as Biff. Though Mad Dog Tannen does get a few funny moments, he's not the humorous character that Biff is, allowing Wilson to try something different. He's great, though, even if I do prefer Biff.

Even Lea Thompson returns, this time not as Marty's mom, but as his great-great-grandmother Maggie. It's weird not seeing her play Lorraine, but Thompson is good in the part, even if it is rather minor. But for all the actors who returned, there's one making her first appearance in the trilogy. Mary Steenburgen plays Clara Clayton, approaching the role in such a way that makes her instantly likable. She and Lloyd have a believable chemistry together, making their scenes that much better.

Watching this movie always makes me a little sad because it's the end of the road for the Back to the Future trilogy. I know that Back to the Future Part IV will never happen, and that any new cinematic adventures bearing the name would come in the form of a remake. But the fact that the franchise concluded with Part III means that the franchise didn't run out of steam after a bunch of lame sequels like some other franchises that shall go unnamed. It lets the fans say goodbye to the characters while they're still at the top of their game. And even if it's not perfect, the movie's still a heck of a watch. So Back to the Future Part III gets three and a half stars, and the whole trilogy gets my seal of approval. If you're one of those poor souls who have yet to see any of the movies, I urge you to track them down and watch them. You won't regret it.

Final Rating: ***½

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Back to the Future Part II (1989)

After twenty-five years, two sequels, a Saturday morning cartoon, a couple of video games, and its own theme park ride, I think its safe to say that Back to the Future is firmly entrenched in American pop culture. It was a box office smash when it was released in the summer of 1985, turning its lead actor from a TV star into a movie star in the process. The movie was so popular that Ronald Reagan even quoted some of its dialogue in the 1986 State of the Union Address.

But believe it or not, Back to the Future was originally intended to be a one time deal. No sequels, no franchise, just that one movie. But thanks to a combination of its popularity and some pestering from Universal Studios, Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale got the gang back together to do not one, but two sequels to flesh out what would become one of my favorite movie trilogies. But we're only doing one movie at a time, so let's jump into the DeLorean and check out Back to the Future Part II.

As we saw at the end of the first movie, Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) managed to fix things in 1955 and returned to a 1985 that was better than the one he'd left. But he's barely gotten settled back in his proper time before Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) pulls up in his time-traveling DeLorean. Doc has just returned from the year 2015, and he's brought bad news back with him. Turns out that both of Marty's kids will get themselves into some really nasty legal trouble, and Marty and Doc have to head to the future to fix it.

Luckily, they are successful in keeping the McFly children out of the mess that sends them to prison. But when they return to 1985, they discover that Hill Valley has become a dystopian hellhole. Thanks to an error in judgment Marty had in 2015, an elderly Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson) was able to briefly steal the time machine and give a teenage version of himself a book compiling fifty years of sports statistics.

Now armed with knowledge of the future, the younger Biff was able to acquire wealth, fame, and power. And to make things worse, this world's version of Doc has been locked in a mental institution, Marty's father was murdered, and Biff is now Marty's stepfather. The only way Marty and Doc can fix this horrifying situation is by going back to 1955 and destroying the book.

I don't think anyone will disagree that the Back to the Future sequels are inferior to the original movie. Nothing they could have done would have topped the first one. But they're still fun and entertaining in their own right. And of the two sequels, Part II has always been my favorite. There's something whimsical about it, something that's always been able to put me in a good mood every time I watch it. I'm not sure I can put my finger on exactly what it is, but who am I to argue with a good time?

Robert Zemeckis returns to the director's chair for both sequels, and his work on Part II is fantastic. The movie looks great, thanks to the combined efforts of the art department, the set designers, ILM's special effects, and Dean Cundey's cinematography. Zemeckis flawlessly puts all of these elements together, while maintaining a steady pace and engrossing atmosphere.

Zemeckis also has a great script to work off of. Written by Bob Gale, the screenplay is full of complexities and talk of paradoxes, along with fun nods to the first movie and a ton of exposition that doesn't factor in until Part III. It's really layered, with so much going on and so much stuff to keep track of. But it never gets convoluted, and anything that does get confusing is eventually explained by the end of Part II or in Part III. The stuff that wasn't paid off until Part III had to be annoying for people who saw the sequels theatrically, though. Nowadays, you can just watch the Part II DVD and immediately transition to the Part III DVD. But there was a six-month period between the theatrical releases of the sequels. It would have been understandable thinking all that leftover exposition was pointless at the time. But I guess that'll happen when you film movies back to back.

But regardless, Gale's writing is not only smart, but it's charming too. The jokes are really funny, and I really liked how over-the-top 2015 was. I know that the whole 2015 thing wasn't completely thought up by Gale, but the fact that it's so out there (and unless something drastic happens in the next five years, so absurdly wrong), that it's always been a source of amusement for me. And even in the hellish alternate 1985, Gale's writing is consistently engaging and entertaining. He makes absolutely certain to keep the story moving and to keep the same energy as the first movie. His script is awesome, and I could probably go on all day singing its praises. But let's move along.

Last on my list is the cast. Nearly everyone from the original movie returns, with a few minor exceptions, and all of them are fantastic. Michael J. Fox once again plays the role of Marty McFly, and he's as good as he was back in 1985. Marty is essentially the backbone of the entire franchise, and I don't know if the franchise would have been as iconic with a lesser actor in the part. But Fox is pitch perfect. He's funny, engaging, and sympathetic, exactly what the character needs.

The same can be said for Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. Lloyd is awesome in all three movies, and although Part III is really his time to shine, he's great in Part II. Doc is the madcap silliness to Marty's straight man, and Lloyd fills that role excellently.

While most of the supporting characters have less to do than in the first one, Biff Tannen has a beefier role than he had previously. Thomas F. Wilson comes back to the character, and he's awesome throughout the whole movie. Wilson has the most work to do out of the cast, playing Biff in three different time periods as well as Biff's grandson in 2015, and he's amazing from start to finish. He's especially good as Biff's grandson and the “alternate 1985” Biff, practically stealing the whole movie in those scenes.

I love Back to the Future Part II. It's a great movie that never gets boring or unfunny. The movie is a fine sequel that, while not equal to the original movie, advances the Back to the Future saga and builds upon the world created by the first movie. It actually makes the first movie better. So even if it's not the best movie out there, it's still a successful one. And on my usual scale, Back to the Future Part II gets three and a half stars, leaning towards four. And if I don't get my hoverboard by 2015, I'm gonna be pissed.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, November 12, 2010

Back to the Future (1985)

Science fiction is a very broad genre. It can encompass a great many things, from global disasters to alien invasions to robots. But of all the different sub-genres, one of my favorites is time travel. I'm a sucker for a time travel story, as long as it's pulled off right. And in 1985, one of the best time travel stories ever told hit theaters. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Robert Zemeckis, Back to the Future combined comedy and sci-fi in what is one of my favorite movies of the '80s.

Welcome to Hill Valley, California. Among the town's citizens is Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox), a high school student with dreams of becoming a rock star. But unfortunately, things haven't really been working out his way. His band is rejected at a big audition for being "just too darn loud," he can't get ahead at school, and worst of all, his family sucks. His siblings are living dead-end lives, his mother (Lea Thompson) is an alcoholic, and his dad (Crispin Glover) is a loser who even in adulthood is still tormented by his high school bully, Biff Tannen (Thomas F. Wilson).

Little does Marty know that he's about to embark on the adventure of his life. He gets a call from his best friend, local scientist Emmett "Doc" Brown (Christopher Lloyd), who asks Marty to meet him at the local mall in the middle of the night. When he arrives, Doc unveils his latest invention: a DeLorean DMC-12 he's converted into a plutonium-powered time machine. Just where do you get plutonium? You steal it from some terrorists who think you're using it to make them a bomb, naturally. How else would you score a cache of plutonium?

His initial experiment — sending his dog one minute into the future — is a success. But immediately thereafter, the terrorists (having finally figured out they've been conned) arrive and shoot Doc dead. Marty jumps into the DeLorean and escapes, accidentally activating the time machine and sending himself back to 1955 in the process. And thanks to having used up all the plutonium during his trip, he's stranded there.

Marty naturally seeks out the only person who can help him, a thirty-years-younger Doc. He's naturally skeptical that Marty is from the future, and is only convinced when Marty tells him the story of how the time machine was conceived, something only Doc himself would have known at the time. Unfortunately, Doc's unable to help due to plutonium's scarcity. The only thing that could conceivably duplicate the necessary electrical charge would be a bolt of lightning. And thanks to his knowledge of the town's history, Marty reveals that they can exploit the lightning that will strike Hill Valley's courthouse the following Saturday. So all they have to do is find a way to funnel the lightning into the DeLorean by the end of the week.

It'll be an interesting week, however. Not long after his arrival in 1955, Marty accidentally prevented his parents from meeting for the first time. Subsequently, his teenage mother has fallen head over heels in love with him instead. This creates a ripple effect that is slowly erasing him and his siblings from existence. To rectify this, Marty must ensure that his parents meet and fall in love before he goes back to the future.

It's weird thinking that Back to the Future is now twenty-five years old. Seriously, 2010 marks Back to the Future's 25th anniversary. The franchise has been such an indelible part of pop culture for so long that I never really considered how long it's been around until the dates were staring me in the face. A lot of it is because of just how timeless the original movie is. It never feels dated or old, and remains as funny and as entertaining as it was two and a half decades ago. The movie hasn't aged one bit, and to tell you the truth, I have no problems calling Back to the Future a true classic.

Piloting this ship is director Robert Zemeckis, who had just made a name for himself with the success of Romancing the Stone a year prior. Zemeckis's direction here is stellar, maintaining a sense of wonder and whimsy throughout the movie's entirety. He keeps the movie's energy going strong, and never once lets it grow tiresome or wear out its welcome. It's evident that Zemeckis knew exactly what he was doing behind the camera, and though he never gets flashy in his efforts, he has crafted an awe-inspiring piece of cinema.

Zemeckis's direction is made even more epic by Alan Silvestri's absolutely amazing music. The score for Back to the Future is without a doubt some of the best movie music I've ever heard. Hell, it's some of the best music I've heard, period. It's fantastic in every sense of the word, and deserves to be as iconic as the movie itself. And while we're talking music, I have to admit that I love the two songs contributed by Huey Lewis & The News. Yeah, I'll agree that "Back In Time" is inferior to "The Power of Love," but both songs are really catchy and a lot of fun to listen to (and to sing along with). But then, I'm a sucker for Huey Lewis & The News, so any movie that has one of their songs on the soundtrack is okay with me.

And I've gotta admit, the script — written by Zemeckis and co-producer Bob Gale — is great too. While stories about modern people finding themselves stranded in the past date as far back as the publication of Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court in 1889, the way that Zemeckis and Gale handle it is what makes Back to the Future stand out. The best part of their script, at least in my eyes, is the characters. Back to the Future has some of the most fun, most entertaining characters I've seen in a movie. Zemeckis and Gale, with help from the actors playing them, make us care about the characters. They make you want to see what happens to them next and hope that everything turns out okay. And when the characters are combined with all those memorable scenes and great lines of dialogue, you end up with a screenplay that becomes one heck of a great movie.

The weird thing about Zemeckis and Gale's script is that it all could have been very different. Find some of the early drafts of the script online, and you'll see what I mean. The time machine wasn't even a DeLorean at first. It was initially a customized refrigerator fueled by Coca-Cola. One draft saw Marty return to 1985 and discovering that rock and roll hadn't been invented yet (and it was up to him to do so). The movie even had an ending where instead of lightning hitting the clock tower, Marty was sent home by the detonation of an atomic bomb at the government's nuclear weapons testing site in Nevada. It boggles my mind knowing that such a classic movie could have been so drastically different from what people have come to know and love over the last two and a half decades. I'm just happy that Zemeckis and Gale arrived upon the final script they ended up working with, because I can't imagine Back to the Future being any different.

But the whole thing would have been shot if it hadn't had a group of actors giving it everything they had. Luckily, Back to the Future features actors who were committed to putting forth the best performances possible. In the lead role is Michael J. Fox, who was still involved his prior claim to fame, the TV show Family Ties, at the time. The summer of 1985 saw the release of his first two big movies, this and Teen Wolf, and Back to the Future especially shows that he was bound to be more than just a TV star. Fox is fantastic here, showing a charm and charisma that really breathes life into Marty McFly. He's funny, likable, and ultimately believable in the role. And to think, the movie almost starred Eric Stoltz instead.

Fox's performance is made better by the awesome supporting cast that backs him up. To tell you the truth, he's nearly overshadowed by some of his costars. One in particular is Christopher Lloyd as Doc Brown. Doc himself has become as popular as the franchise, and it's all because of Lloyd's madcap performance. Watching Lloyd play Doc as if his brain operates on a completely different level than everybody else's is a lot of fun. He's probably the most entertaining mad scientist ever captured on film, and I honestly couldn't imagine Back to the Future without him.

That's not to say the rest of the cast isn't great too. Lea Thompson is engaging as Marty's mom, playing her with a simultaneous doe-eyed innocence and understated wild streak. I also really liked Crispin Glover as Marty's dad. I usually enjoy Glover's work anyway, but he's all aces in this one. His exasperated dorkiness makes him very amiable and sympathetic. And as one of the greatest cinematic bullies ever, Thomas F. Wilson is nothing short of awesome. Biff Tannen is one of my favorite movie characters ever, largely due to Wilson's performance. He plays Biff as such an irritating jerk that you can't help but cheer when he finally gets what's coming to him.

It's weird to think that Back to the Future is as old as it is. But age has only made it even more fun and entertaining. The movie is a tremendous experience from start to finish, no doubt about it. I'll even go as far as to say that anyone who calls Back to the Future a bad movie is either an idiot or a liar. It's one heck of a movie that only gets better every time I see it. So yeah, I'm giving Back to the Future the full monty with five stars. If you haven't seen it yet, do yourself a favor and do so now.

Final Rating: ****

Thursday, November 11, 2010

The Pest (1997)

When I reviewed Tank Girl last week, I called it a bad movie that I just couldn't bring myself to hate. I didn't realize that I would be reviewing its total opposite so soon, but here I am talking about The Pest. It's a movie so tremendously awful that I have no problem whatsoever hating it. If I could kill it and bury it in a shallow grave out in the desert, I would. I don't know what the makers of The Pest wanted to achieve, but if they wanted to make an unfunny comedy that quite literally wears out its welcome within ninety seconds, then they were successful.

Meet Pestario "Pest" Vargas (John Leguizamo), a con artist from Miami who is probably the most annoying person anyone will ever meet. When the Scottish mob calls in a $50,000 debt, Pest is stuck trying to quickly come up with the cash.

He is soon thereafter approached by Gustav Shank (Jeffrey Jones), a big game hunter from Germany whose big game of choice is human beings. Looking to add a Latino to his trophy collection, Gustav offers Pest a deal: survive being hunted for 24 hours, and he will be paid 50,000 dollars. Realizing that this would give him the opportunity to get the Scottish mob off his back, Pest agrees, and in that 24-hour period, he has a series of wacky misadventures while trying to stay alive.

There is no denying that The Pest is a very bad movie, but the fact that it's a bad comedy makes it even worse. I don't know what it is about them, but awful movies seem even more awful when they're comedies. Bad comedies are practically intolerable, and The Pest is no exception. It is a complete failure on every possible level. It's such an abysmal waste of time and effort that its mere existence makes me want to weep and then die.

Helming this disaster is Paul Miller, a director I've never heard of and probably never will again. His direction has no life, no spark. It's as if Miller simply couldn't be bothered to even try. Even if he knew his movie was a piece of crap, couldn't he have at least made an attempt to care?

But Miller's work is nowhere near as bad as the writing. The script is credited to David Bar Katz from a story by he and John Leguizamo, and if it were me, I'd have probably used a fake name. Not only is it a cheap ripoff of Richard Connell's 1924 short story "The Most Dangerous Game," but it's just dreadful, period. There is not a single worthwhile moment that I can think of. It's juvenile in the worst way, with jokes that are either not funny or just plain offensive, and a protagonist that is so unlikable that you'll wish you could jump into the movie and punch him. Seriously, by the end of the movie, you'll be cheering for Gustav to finally kill Pest. What idiot thought it was a good idea to have a main character that was so irritating? How are we supposed to sympathize with Pest when you're actually rooting for the Nazi villain to shoot him?

It doesn't help anything that the cast isn't that great either. John Leguizamo plays the title role, and all he did was leave me confused. Leguizamo can be really funny if given the right material, but considering that he helped write this piece of crap, it leaves me wondering just what the hell he was thinking. In all honesty, Leguizamo's performance wouldn't have been so bad if it weren't for how poor the script is. With better jokes, he could have made The Pest at least mediocre. But sadly, if the jokes don't work, neither will the person telling them.

The supporting cast doesn't do much to help, but I must confess to liking Jeffrey Jones and Tom McLeister as Gustav and his faithful assistant Leo. They're actually funny in spite of the material they have to work with. But everyone else is forgettable. Edoardo Ballerini is irritating as Gustav's incredibly gay son, while Freddy Rodriguez and Aries Spears, who play Pest's best friends, end up being more annoying than funny. The rest of the cast... meh.

I can sum this review up in six words: "please do not watch The Pest." Really, don't. Do not rent the DVD. If you land on it while channel-surfing, change the channel to something else. If someone says to you, "Hey, let's watch The Pest," slap that person. It's a terrible movie that would be better off forgotten. Of course, this review is only helping perpetuate the movie's presence, but I had to warn people about it. The Pest is a bad movie of the worst kind, its only redeeming factor being that it's not longer. It's an unbearingly frustrating movie that I can only give one star. I'd actually give it something in the negative numbers if my ratings scale went that low. It's that bad.

Final Rating: *