Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pee-wee's Big Adventure (1985)

I've written in some of my earlier reviews that I'm a bit biased towards things I grew up enjoying. For example, when it comes to entertainment, my generation had it a lot better than the youth of today. Look at the schedule of Saturday morning cartoons from between 1986 and 1996, and I'd bet that most of the shows that aired during that period are better than most of the shows marketed towards kids nowadays. And I'll admit that Saved by the Bell was really lame even back when it was popular, but I'd almost rather watch it than The Suite Life of Zack and Cody or whatever other crappy sitcoms the Disney Channel is churning out.

But out of all the kids shows that have ever aired, I doubt there is one that will ever be able to match the sheer madcap insanity of Pee-wee's Playhouse, starring the one and only Pee-wee Herman. If you haven't heard of Pee-wee's Playhouse, you're really missing out. There's no real way to describe the show, other than it looks like what would happen if you watched Howdy Doody during an acid trip. It ran as part of CBS's Saturday morning programming block from 1986 to 1990, and I loved every second of its bizarre surrealism.

I didn't realize until I was a teenager, however, that the character of Pee-wee had existed for some time prior the debut of Pee-wee's Playhouse. The creation of comedian Paul Reubens, Pee-wee's origins can be traced back to 1977, during Reubens's tenure as a member of the Groundlings comedy troupe. But the character's first significant appearance didn't happen until 1980, when Reubens began The Pee-wee Herman Show. A live stage show starring Reubens, the late, great Phil Hartman, and other Groundlings alumni, The Pee-wee Herman Show became so popular that one performance was broadcast on HBO.

While Reubens — or more accurately, Pee-wee — enjoyed plenty of exposure thanks to The Pee-wee Herman Show and his appearances on Late Night with David Letterman, he would hit officially hit the big time with Pee-wee's first movie, Pee-wee's Big Adventure. And not only was it Pee-wee's first movie, but it was the first feature-length movie to be directed by Tim Burton and scored by Danny Elfman. And let me tell you, Pee-wee's Big Adventure is just as crazy as you'd expect it to be.

As you can more than likely surmise, the story revolves around Pee-wee (Reubens), a childlike man who absolutely cherishes his tricked-out bicycle. Such is Pee-wee's love for his bicycle that when it goes missing, he goes off the deep end and becomes an emotional wreck. He immediately suspects Francis Buxton (Mark Holton), an annoying rich kid who has long coveted the bike in question, but Pee-wee ultimately has no proof that Francis is guilty of any wrongdoing.Desperate to reacquire his beloved possession, he seeks the help of a dishonest psychic that tells him his bicycle is in the basement of the Alamo. Not willing to wait for any other leads, Pee-wee hitchhikes across the country, hoping to be reunited with his bicycle.

If you grew up during Pee-wee's heyday in the latter part of the '80s, then you've probably already seen and loved Pee-wee's Big Adventure. That would make reading this review the equivalent of me preaching to the choir. But the uninitiated among you who have yet to see it are really missing out on a fun, surreal movie that isn't quite like anything else.

But how has the movie managed to hold up so well over the last twenty-five years? It may be due to the nostalgia factor. The movie is a total relic of the '80s, a kitschy piece of retro pop culture that could have only been made back then. And that's what's so fantastic about it. I can't speak for anyone else, but every time I watch Pee-wee's Big Adventure, I feel like a little kid again. It makes me remember just how much fun it was to watch this movie when I was little, and I enjoy that. There's also the fact that it's a good movie, plain and simple. It's a movie whose creative elements all effectively gel together to create an hour and a half of pure silly entertainment.

Let's follow my usual routine and begin with the direction. At the helm is Tim Burton, making his debut as a feature film director. You can definitely see his involvement, as it has the distinct style that you'd expect from Burton's work. Pee-wee's Big Adventure doesn't have the same gothic feel of his future movies, but it still has the same energy, the same passion. Burton injects the story with a particular sense of whimsy that makes even the most ludicrous of scenes believable. I honestly do not think anyone other than Tim Burton could have directed this movie; it just wouldn't have been the same otherwise.

It does help, though, that he manages to get a fantastic score out of Danny Elfman, who at the time was known primarily as the leader of the experimental rock band Oingo Boingo. Pee-wee's Big Adventure marks Elfman's first orchestral score, but he sounds like he'd been at it forever. His music here perfectly adds to the almost childlike fantasy feel the movie has.

But Burton's direction and Elfman's score are only parts of what makes Pee-wee's Big Adventure so great. Another element is the script, penned by Paul Reubens himself, Phil Hartman, and Michael Varhol. The script is loaded with silly non-sequiturs, wacky characters, and some of the most entertaining nonsense imaginable. It's really a series of skits interconnected by the thread of Pee-wee's search for his bike, but Reubens, Hartman, and Varhol handle it perfectly.

The last element that makes the movie what it is is the wonderful cast. Though the focus of the movie is obviously Pee-wee, the supporting characters all make a strong impression as well. Judd Omen and Diane Salinger are likable in their tiny roles as an escaped convict and a truck stop waitress that Pee-wee meets during his exploits, and Mark Holton is deliciously sleazy as the greedy, immature Francis. You want to reach through the screen and strangle Francis as soon as you see him, so Holton was obviously hitting the right notes with his performance.

My favorite performance from the supporting cast, though, came from Elizabeth Daily as Dottie, a bike shop clerk who pines for Pee-wee's affection. She's sweet and charming in the role, and though her screen time is sadly limited, Daily really adds a lot to the movie.

However, the entire movie is carried by Paul Reubens. Had his performance been bad or even mediocre, then it would have completely ruined the entire movie. But Reubens doesn't disappoint. He's hilarious, serving as the master of ceremonies in this outrageous cinematic circus. It almost doesn't even feel like an actor playing a character, but like Burton managed to catch a childlike lunatic in a grey suit on film. (Maybe that's why the cast roll call in the credits lists not Reubens, but "Pee-wee Herman as himself.") Reubens is having a heck of a lot of fun, and it's infectious.

Pee-wee's Big Adventure actually may not appeal to everyone. Gene Siskel actually gave it a zero-star review when it was released. But the sheer insanity of it is amazingly delightful. I mean, how many other movies have you seen that climax with a chase scene that includes Santa Claus, Godzilla, and Twisted Sister? None, that's how many. Pee-wee's Big Adventure is the only one that I know of. I absolutely love it, so I'll gladly give the movie four and a half stars on the Five-Star Sutton Scale. And if you're curious, yes, I do know what you are. But what am I?

Final Rating: ****½

Friday, January 15, 2010

Dead End Drive-In (1986)

I was goofing around on Wikipedia a while back, reading their article about exploitation movies. You would probably be surprised at just how many different styles of exploitation movie there are. Everyone knows "Blaxploitation," which gave us such flicks as Foxy Brown and Shaft. And slasher movies could probably be thrown into the mix as well.But then there's the other ones, the ones you'd almost have to go out of your way to find. There's the "women in prison" movies, Nazi-themed movies like Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS, "sexploitation" movies like Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, rape and revenge movies, and so on. Exploitation movies are such a broad concept that we could honestly be here all day citing examples.

One of the ones listed on Wikipedia that really caught my eye, though, was "Ozploitation." I initially thought it had something to do with weird parodies of The Wizard of Oz, as dumb as that may sound But instead, it's a term used to describe low-budget, B-grade action, comedy, and horror movies produced during the revival of the Australian film industry during the '70s and '80s.

While Mad Max and its sequels are perhaps the most famous Ozploitation movies out there, there are plenty more to be had. Some of them took direct inspiration from the dystopian future that Mad Max Rockatansky called home, the title of one of them being enough to make me want to sit down and review it. So let's dig into the 1986 flick Dead End Drive-In.

As the 1980s became the 1990s, a series of catastrophes have left the world's economy in ruins. Australia has been hit especially hard, with social unrest leading to a country where lawlessness and gang warfare have become the status quo. It's gotten to the point where the Australian government has come up with what they feel is a solution to their problems.

But first, let's meet Jimmy "Crabs" Rossini (Ned Manning), who's borrowed his brother's '56 Chevy so he and his girlfriend Carmen (Natalie McCurry) can go to a local drive-in theater. Because the unemployed get in at a reduced rate, Crabs tells the box office clerk he doesn't have a job so he can save a few bucks. But just as the young couple are about to have a go in the backseat, someone steals two of the car's tires. Mr. Thompson (Peter Whitford), the drive-in's manager, is unable to help, and they're ultimately forced to spend the night at the drive-in.

Crabs and Carmen wake up the following morning to discover that the drive-in is actually something of a shanty town called home by hundreds of people that live out of their cars. Throw in the electrified fences surrounding the premises and the police stationed at the gates, and it quickly becomes apparent that the drive-in is a prison for society's unwanted. Its prisoners are fed a steady diet of junk food, drugs, rock and roll, and nightly movies, satisfied with living a passive, lazy existence. While Carmen quickly assimilates into the population, Crabs begins planning his escape.

I don't think I'd be wrong to assume that you've probably never heard of Dead End Drive-In. I myself hadn't actually heard of it until recently, when I stumbled upon it while looking up drive-in theaters on Google. I thought the premise sounded intriguing enough, and so to my Netflix queue it went. And you know what? It wasn't half bad. It's got its fair share of flaws, and I doubt I'll ever think of it again once I finish writing this review. But I can't say that I hated it. I actually kinda liked it.

At the helm is Brian Trenchard-Smith, the director behind such classics as Leprechaun 3 and Leprechaun 4: In Space. But let's not hold those movies against him, because Trenchard-Smith actually does a respectable job with Dead End Drive-In. He never lets the movie become boring, as every scene really helps build momentum. It's obvious the movie didn't have a very high budget, but Trenchard-Smith makes the most of what he's got with some cool production design and great cinematography from Paul Murphy.

I also thought that the acting was top-notch, especially from the lead actor. The whole movie would have been negatively affected had the actor playing Crabs put forth a bad performance, but Ned Manning is great. He's guilty of a little overacting at times, but Manning is likable in the role. He's good enough that he makes you want to follow him, to see if he'll be able to get out of the situation his character is stuck in. You can't really go wrong with that.

Outside of Manning, there aren't really too many major players. The whole movie centers around Manning and his character, and the supporting cast doesn't get a whole lot of time to really shine. But that doesn't mean they don't contribute.In the role of the movie's antagonist, Peter Whitford is a lot of fun. His character is a sleazy prick putting on a "nice guy" fa├žade, and Whitford is great at it. Natalie McCurry is also good as Crabs's girlfriend Carmen, providing the movie with an intriguing balance to Crabs's quest for freedom. There's also a good performance from Dave Gibson in a super-small and thankless role. His biggest scene comes when he delivers a monologue about why he enjoys living at the drive-in, and Gibson doesn't disappoint.

If there are any flaws to Dead End Drive-In, they come from the script written by Peter Smalley. Granted, there are some elements that work, like its social satire. The drive-in is an odd mirror of society, becoming a little world of its own. The cynical people living within its electrified walls are provided with everything they could want, and allow themselves to become complacent, far more satisfied to continue living their shallow, apathetic existence because there's nothing outside for them. The whole thing doesn't fly too well with Crabs, who would far rather have a life of freedom in that crappy outside world than live in captivity in the drive-in. I'm sure it was far more relevant back in the '80s, but it works.

There are other parts that don't work, though. Again, I go back to the social satire. After a while, Smalley really starts to hit you over the head with it despite the fact that the satire hasn't really advanced anything. And then, towards the end, he introduces a group of Asians who are dumped into the drive-in. Everyone but Crabs immediately goes into a racist fury, organizing against those who they feel have encroached upon their territory. The movie was rolling along pretty good, then Smalley introduces that and things take a really odd turn. It feels like it's only there to make sure that Crabs is the only likable character in the whole movie.

And it doesn't help anything that the anti-Asian subplot has no payoff at all. They're brought in, an Indian man gets harassed in the restroom, there's a "white power" rally at the concession stand, and then boom, we hit a climax full of explosions and a car chase. It's like they wanted to keep the movie under an hour and a half, so Smalley just chopped twenty minutes worth of script out of the end.

I also didn't like how the movie spent so long focusing on Crabs investigating the drive-in's inner workings. The whole thing was obvious within the first fifteen minutes, and the movie just keeps going along anyway. It was time that could have been spent on either Crabs's escape plan or life inside the drive-in.

But Dead End Drive-In isn't too bad a movie when looked at as a whole. I honestly can't say that I didn't enjoy it. It's not a great movie or anything, but it's an hour and a half of dumb yet endearing fun. Chances are that it'll forever stay in obscurity (at least here in the United States), but if you're a fan of movies like Mad Max, you might end up feeling the way I do if you stumble across it. It'd at least make for fun watching on a lazy Sunday afternoon when you have nothing better to do.

Final Rating: **½

Friday, January 1, 2010

Night of the Living Dead 3D (2006)

In the decades since it was released in 1968, George Romero's Night of the Living Dead has become one of the horror genre's most beloved and enduring classics. It was a groundbreaking movie that redefined how people view zombies. But unfortunately, thanks to a mistake made by its original distributor, the movie almost immediately lapsed into the public domain.

Because of that, anybody with the means has been able to release the movie however they see fit. Whether it's a plain DVD release of the movie, an alternate edit, a colorized version, or a parody with new audio dubbed in for comedic effect, it's been done. Romero even wrote and produced his own remake in 1990, with Tom Savini in the director's chair. And thanks to its copyright status, anyone else wanting to do their own remake is free to do so.

And another remake is exactly what we got in 2006, when independent filmmaker Jeff Broadstreet culled together a cast and crew to create his own version of Night of the Living Dead. And to make sure his movie got some attention, he made the movie in 3D. And just like the 3D effects themselves, the movie proved to be completely unnecessary.

If you've seen either of the prior iterations of Night of the Living Dead, you know the setup for this one. But let's do this plot synopsis thing anyway. As the movie begins, we're introduced to quarreling siblings Barb (Brianna Brown) and Johnny (Ken Ward) as they travel through some winding country roads to a cemetery out in the middle of nowhere. They'd planned on attending the funeral of their aunt, but when they arrive, the cemetery is abandoned. I'll give you one guess where this is going. Yep, zombies attack.

Johnny is dispatched and ends up taking the car with him, leaving Barb to run aimlessly through the woods for help as day turns into night. Help does arrive in the form of Ben (Joshua DesRoces), who rescues her from some zombies and takes her to the presumed safety of a remote farmhouse owned by the marijuana-farming Cooper family. Both Ben and Cooper family patriarch Henry (Greg Travis) think her story about flesh-eating corpses is a little wild, but they'll soon find out how right she is when zombies surround the house.

The original Night of the Living Dead is widely hailed as one of the best horror movies ever made. The 1990 remake is actually pretty good, too. But this movie is crap. If you watched a video of people peeing of a DVD of the original movie for an hour and twenty minutes, then you'll have more or less seen this movie. Even the director has said that it was pretty much an attempt to make a quick buck by remaking a public domain horror movie. Though even if you forget that it's a remake and judge it on its own merits, it's still lousy. The 3D is never really put to any creative use, the acting is lame, and the special effects are awful.

At the helm of this sinking ship is Jeff Broadstreet. His prior directorial credits include such titles as Sexbomb, Area 51: The Alien Interview, and Dr. Rage, so you should be able to guess what kind of movie this is going to be based on those titles alone. I haven't seen any of his other movies, but judging by this one, Broadstreet seems to have no idea how to make a horror movie. There is no tension, no suspense, nothing scary to be found at all. Instead of the frightening atmosphere that Romero and Savini gave us in their versions of the movie, Broadstreet chooses to make a dull, uninspired movie that is a real chore to get through.

Broadstreet's direction probably could have been saved if the gore effects were decent. But they're practically nonexistent. Everything gory happens off-screen or in the shadows, rendering it completely ineffective. Though considering the movie looks like it was made for peanuts, decent gore effects probably weren't in the budget.

The only reason to even watch the film at all is that 3D gimmick the movie saddled itself with to sucker in some paying customers. But wouldn't you know it, Broadstreet screws that up too. You'd think that a 3D zombie movie would have blood and guts flying at the screen, but since there's no blood or guts to be found, we're stuck with characters pointing things at the audience. Broadstreet doesn't even bother to get creative with it, with the height of the 3D gags being a character waving a joint around like he's offering the viewer a hit. It's unimaginative, and the fact that the movie's big selling point is not exploited to its fullest potential is disappointing.

The writing doesn't do the movie any favors, either. I say that because first-time writer Robert Valding has contributed a script so banal that I think it could cause cancer in lab rats. I can forgive all the stupid weed humor, since it was apparently thrust upon him when he got the job. But couldn't he have at least, you know, tried? Did his characters have to be so damn stupid? The characters do nothing but sit around and talk. Do they board up the windows and doors to try and defend themselves? No. Do they go on the offensive against the zombies? No. Do they even try to hide from the zombies? No. The zombies are secondary.

It wouldn't be so bad if the characters actually showed some smarts. The Cooper family actually watches Romero's original Night of the Living Dead on television at one point, yet seem completely oblivious to the fact that the army of flesh-eating corpses outside the house could quite possibly be zombies. They all just sit around and have lengthy discussions about nothing. It's like an episode of Seinfeld, only with zombies, bad actors, and no funny jokes. It's pathetic. Throw in a climax that comes completely out of left field, especially in its attempt to actually explain how the zombie plague began, and you've got a script that would make good toilet paper.

And it's all topped off by the embarrassing acting, which is made up of a bunch of people you've never heard of and will probably never hear from again. The cast feels like they were a bunch of understudies from a local dinner theater that were rounded up and thrust in front of the camera at the last minute with no preparation at all. It's as if they hadn't even read their lines until just before Broadstreet called "action." Probably the worst offender is Brianna Brown, who delivers her lines with as little emotion as possible and perpetually looks like someone farted in her face prior to each take.

What really surprises me about the cast, though, is that they somehow managed to rope Sid Haig into this mess. Yeah, the same Sid Haig that memorably played Captain Spaulding in House of 1000 Corpses and The Devil's Rejects. Surely the paycheck couldn't have been good enough to justify being in this awful thing. Did he lose a bet or something? He pops up in the movie's third act as a mortician whose only requirements are to be creepy and deliver some lame exposition before taking a trip to Crazy Town. And though the role is thankless and the character is unwanted, Haig still puts forth as good a performance as he can. He's too good for this movie, and I hope he knew that when he agreed to be in it.

There's a type of movie out there called "the mockbuster." Primarily made by Hollywood film studio The Asylum, mockbusters are low-budget knockoffs of mainstream blockbusters meant to trick rubes into thinking the movies are related to one another. Even though The Asylum had nothing whatsoever to do with Night of the Living Dead 3D, it really feels like the kind of movie they'd make. Everything about the movie is lousy and uninspired, like they weren't even bothering to really try making a good movie. The truth is that it's so bad, it's is an embarrassment to anyone who calls themselves a fan of horror movies. I'm going to give it one and a half stars, and ask that you ignore it like I should have. If you have to watch the movie, make sure you just go with the 2D version. Those cheap red and blue glasses will give you a headache, and they just make everything look purple anyway.

Final Rating: