Two Sundays back I spent all day aboard a plane flying across the Atlantic. A quick whirlwind trip to Germany to see my cousin wed in the Black Forest. A joyous time was had by all. The flight back on the other hand? A tight bus filled with rambunctious tourists jittery with anticipation of New York City tourism. I decided to loose myself in United Airlines' movie selection. An 8 hour flight quickly transformed into a 5 film marathon...5 films I carefully selected. I only want to watch movies on a plane that I would never in a million years watch in a theater or my own television set. I think I chose wisely. They certainly distracted me from all the pent up energy erupting from my fellow travelers.
When I landed back in the States it was time to finally finish the Breaking Bad saga, the latest Stephen King, and crack into some appropriate October movie watching. Earlier this year I was obsessing over They Live, and it's finally sparked me to blitz through John Carpenter's entire career. Unlike my Scorsese-A-Thon (which I will get back to soon enough), I'm already well-versed in the horror-meister's career. These are the films that shaped little Brad into the genre freak he is today. That being said, I wanted to tackle his film canon in reverse order due to the simple fact that I would much rather end on Dark Star than the painfully boring cliche that is The Ward.
John Carpenter's later career is not all garbage, it's simply a pale shadow of his younger glory. The Ward, Ghosts of Mars, Vampires, Escape From LA, Village of the Damned...I certainly enjoyed watching them this time around, you you can find plenty of good bits, but they only underscore the disappointment of their overall rubbish screenplays. Then there is In The Mouth Of Madness. Obviously, we here at ITMOD, hold this film in rather high regard. It's Carpenter's final masterpiece and an essential entry in Sam Neil's career. Jurassic Park, Sirens, Dead Calm - naw man, it's all about In The Mouth Of Madness.
Now You See Me: The general premise of a gang of street magicians pilfering from the rich to give to the poor sounds like a lot of fun, especially when the Robin Hoods are played by Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco with Mark Ruffalo, Melanie Laurent, Michael Caine, and Morgan Freeman hot on their trail. Dang. That really is a hell of a cast. But Transporter director Louis Leterrier doesn't seem to care or even understand the appeal of the slight of hand; he would rather bombard us with cheap pop-up CGI. The film is certainly missing some razzle dazzle. Not the worst thing in the world, but I'm curious as to what exactly drew these actors to this project in the first place. Just a paycheck? I'm betting the original screenplay by Boaz Yakin, Edward Ricourt, Josh Applebaum, Andre Nemec, Ed Solomon...hmmmmm...I think I see the problem here. Who knows what the original intent of Now You See Me was, or what attracted the players, but this looks like a case of too many bored cooks in the kitchen.
The Heat: This movie is not funny. The jokes are stupid, obvious, and as fresh as Nick Nolte's drawers. Sandra Bullock plays Miss Congeniality, a stiff, know-it-all fed who can't make it in a man's world because she's too busy being a smug bitch. Melissa McCarthy is fat. Isn't that hilarious? She can't get out of car doors!!! Hardy Har Har! These Loose Cannons might as well have 48 Hours to get all Lethal Weapon on some Red Heat or they'll be stuck Running Scared from Turner, Hooch, Tango, & Cash. If you're looking for some actual laughs mining the same nostalgia than may I suggest The Other Guys or Hot Fuzz.
Monsters University: Cute. Clever. Slight. This Pixar prequel is a good enough way to kill 90 minutes, but when compared with the studios shining stars (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up) or even its solid gold (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Wall E) than "meh" can be your only critique. The Monsters Inc characters are fun enough, and the voice talent is strong, but I feel very little heart in their relationships. As with Cars, I see more opportunity in merchandising.
The Host: Certainly one of the worst films of the year, but should any of us be surprised when this manipulative teen dreck comes from the dustbin brainpan of Stephanie Meyer? No. But I do expect more from director Andrew Niccol, the man who brought us underrated gems like Gattaca and Lord of War. I'm sure he was initially attracted to the Invasion of the Body Snatchers premise in which alien Souls (ick, really?) are transplanted into hapless human hosts, but this puppet master conceit is dumped in an attempt to force passionless polygamy romance down our throats. Saoirse Ronan is an actress I generally like (Atonement, Hana, even The Lovely Bones), but her alien Wanderer (ick, really? REALLY?) is an abysmal attempt at split personality and often results in cringing internal bickering. Love interests Max Irons & Jake Abel are a couple of lunkheads not worth the time it takes to finish this sentence. I will say that adult actors William Hurt & Diane Kruger are solid even when the screenplay their trapped within attempts to strangle out their quality. That's a win.
Harry Dean Stanton - Partly Fiction: If you love movies than you love Harry Dean Stanton. The man has mastered the bit part excelling in films as diverse as Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Hud, Alien, Repo Man, Wild At Heart, The Last Temptation of Christ, and The Avengers. Wim Wenders & Sam Shepherd produced his ultimate performance as the wandering heartsick Travis Henderson in Paris, Texas and it ranks as one of my very favorite movies. The actor is a notorious lover of women and sampler of narcotics. His days & nights with Jack Nicholson are legendary in Hollywood Babylon. Does this documentary explore any of that? Not really. Stanton philosophizes, smokes, and takes the praise given him by other iconic filmmakers. It's a fascinating watch that scratches the surface of the man, but never quite breaks through. It's probably for the best, but I could have watched at least three more hours of Stanton zen out on nothingness.
The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (Remake): With the exception of the latest entry (not all the 3D in the world could have saved that mess), I really do enjoy every segment of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise. The original film is a flawless masterpiece in terror cinema, and its sequels, remakes, and prequels all offer enough gruesome gore or oddball horror to keep my sickie heart satisfied. Marcus Nispel's sequel wins a lot of points for nabbing original DP Daniel Perl for this modern day makeover, and the result is a stylishly thick entertainment that revels in the filth of the American West. In an about-face from the original film, Nispel is gleeful in his depictions of bloody, sweaty meat as well as the grotesquery of the chainsaw wielding perpetrators. Jessica Biel is little more than a jiggly tank-top, but she gets miles out of the mud, muck, and rain she jostles through. R Lee Ermy makes as much use of his sheriff's hat as Biel does with her wet tee, furrowing his brow, popping out those Dumbo ears, and twitching a stare from the shadows. He's as much a beast as Leatherface. Nothing will ever touch the original, but if you can get off your "Blasphemous Remakes!" high horse than you might enjoy some of this style over substance.
The Ward: Amber Heard runs through the forest wearing nothing but a nightie. She reaches a house, lights a match, and waits for the cops to drag her crazy ass to the nuthouse. Of course, she has no memory of anything before the fire. It's up to her psychiatrist, Jared Harris, to open her mind and free her from the nightmarish visions of a worm riddled specter. John Carpenter's latest and possibly final film (he ain't getting any younger folks) is disappointingly dull, but there are strong performances from the loony bin players. Unfortunately, nearly all of the spooky stuff falls flat. When the film isn't bothered with creaking doors and jump-scares it's engaging enough. Heck, Heard is a stronger Final Girl than Jaime Lee Curtis in Halloween - the chick can swing an axe with the best of them - but she's saddled with a dead-end script & a groaning twist of a climax.
Masters of Horror - Pro Life: Given a real budget and a cast upgrade (of course, you gotta keep Ron Perlman), John Carpenter's Masters of Horror episode could have been a hellishly painful bit of social horror. As is, it's a solid entry in the anthology series hindered by some flat cinematography and even flatter performances from the doctors on staff. Still, it's a beast of an idea. A woman flees into an abortion clinic seeking asylum from her religious zealot father, and a fix for the demon growing in her belly. Not easy material, and I give credit to the screenplay for not mocking either viewpoints. Pro-Life is certainly not the kind of social horror movie we're seeing on the big screen these days.
Masters of Horror - Cigarette Burns: "Some films are meant to be seen." Norman Reedus is hired by Udo Kier to hunt down the last remaining print of a supposedly haunted film that played once and resulted in a movie house massacre. I'm a sucker for this kinda stuff. A mini mixture of The Ninth Gate & 8MM with a strong emphasis on KNB gore. Reedus & Kier are great together, and the bit in which Kier introduces Reedus to the props & extras of La Fin Absolue du Monde is certainly shiver inducing. Ice cubes, white faces, and a quivering voice = creeeepy. I was a struggling witness to Showtime's Masters of Horror, but I think John Carpenter was one of the more successful helmsmen to squeeze blood from the stone. Again, I think there is an even stronger cinematic experience in this screenplay, but I doubt we will ever be gifted that experience.
Ghosts of Mars: John Carpenter is no stranger to the remake. He successfully updated The Thing From Another World, and did his darndest with Village of the Damned (see below). In the late 90s he even remade his own films: Escape From New York into Escape From LA, and Assault on Precinct 13 into Ghosts of Mars. Curious. Neither are as strong as their source material, but if your brain isn't immediately closed to the notion, both films offer moments of B-Movie jalopy enthusiasm. Carpenter desperately wants to be Howard Hawks, finding his Duke this time in the emotionless Natasha Henstridge. Yeah, she's the worst. Watching her match tough with Ice Cube's uber macho Desolation Williams is embarrassing, and I had to turn awkwardly away from the screen during a couple of her D.O.A. line delivers. Still, I dig Ice Cube. He's a goof, and certainly not as badass or cool as Darwin Joston's Napolean Wilson, but the man can stick his landing with a terrible catchphrase - "COME ON, YOU MINDLESS MOTHERFUCKERS!" Ghosts of Mars has a paper-thin plot involving an evil Martian ghost cloud infecting colonists, and transforming them into screaming Hot Topic metal heads, but it's all just an excuse to dismember, disembowel, and decapitate. Not the pinnacle of John Carpenter's career, but certainly not the nadir (tune in next week!).
Star Trek IV - The Voyage Home: The genius of the fourth film in the franchise is its nearly plotless screenplay. There's this probe from someplace, it's looking for whales for some reason, and if the USS Enterprise doesn't travel back in time to steal a couple of beasties then the world will be destroyed by some crazy amount of probe energy. Whatever. It doesn't matter. What does matter is that our favorite characters are dropped into the past (the 1980s), and give us a good ribbing for all the stupidity we produce. Everyone gets something to do - Chekov & Uhura hunt for nuclear wessels, Scotty & Bones build a fish tank, Sulu snags a helicopter, and Kirk & Spock contemplate colorful metaphors. The Voyage Home is simply a good time at the movies for both Trekkies & the ignorant. On this millionth viewing, Deforest Kelley seems to step away as the MVP. His friendly harassment of Spock, the snarky glares towards Scotty, and the climactic hospital assault highlight the good doctor as the ultimate lovable bastard. The Voyage Home is just a series of gags. Sure, they're saving the Earth, but it's all just an excuse for Kirk & Co to baffle their way through our pop culture. Science Fiction as Belittlement.
Vampires: "Don't make me come over there and beat the shit out of you, padre." James Woods saves this movie. He's a monstrous bastard of a human being tasked by the Catholic Church to hunt down and destroy vampires, but that just seems to be an excuse for him to beat women and cut on mewling priests. He enjoys his job, and it's uncomfortable to watch. He reminds me very much of a Sam Peckinpah hero. He's the good guy because the camera follows him, but his actions (and words) are utterly deplorable. After a poisonous bite on the thigh, Sheryl Lee is brutalized by our God fearing warriors. Slapped, beaten, berated, and humiliated. Totally un-PC and often painful to witness. James Woods is not the white hat hero, he's a scumbag who enjoys his job a little too much, and he just happens to be saving the world in the process. John Carpenter's Vampires is not a great movie, or even a particularly good one. But it is certainly an oddity, with characters lifted outta time, and jammed down our good taste. Who cares if this Dirty Dozen slays Thomas Ian Griffith's continuously snarling Master or not? It's all about their wave of destruction.
Doctor Sleep by Stephen King: A sequel to The Shining. Does that sound like a good idea? Not to me it didn't. A couple years back, when I saw King at the George Mason Fall For The Books, he read a passage from this book that dealt with a caravan of psychic vampires, but never once mentioned young Danny Torrence of the original terrifying novel. I scratched my head and waited. Well, the day is finally here. Danny Torrence is now Dan Torrence, also known as Doctor Sleep, a recovering alcoholic helping the residents of the Helen Rivington House pass peacefully to the other side. He soon becomes aware of a little girl gifted with The Shining who has fallen into the crosshairs of those aforementioned psychic vampires. Doctor Sleep is one of those classic page turners we've come to expect from King, and there are hints of that original ick that made the first book so damn compelling. But at the end of the day, I have to ask, why revisit Danny? The Overlook turned him into a pathetic mess of a human being (no surprise there) and I guess Doctor Sleep gives a little closure to that character doomed by his father's haunted madness. It's fun enough for the fanboy, but it's certainly not revelatory.
Shack Out On 101: "You are my heart, but I'd cut you out if you were a traitor!" An exceptional, forgotten gem of Cold War cinema. Terry Moore is a proud American waitress fending herself from the affection of Lee Marvin's slobby mean bastard as well as Keenan Wynn's desperate sadsack proprietor. When she catches wind that her scientist boyfriend (the painfully dull Frank Lovejoy - come on Terry, get with the Wynn!) might be trading secrets with the reds, the tiny food shack on the side of the road becomes the final battleground for American Liberty. Never has a short order cook been as creepy or as demented as Lee Marvin; this bear in human form ranks right up there with his Big Heat heavy. Edward & Mildred Dein deliver a crackerjack screenplay with witty, biting repartee between all the film's combatants. I'm honestly shocked that I had never heard of this film before, but I'm thankful that Olive Films had the brains to finally bring Shack Out on 101 to blu ray. Certainly one of the best films I've discovered this year.
Escape From LA: "This town loves a winner." A sequel as remake, or a remake as sequel? Whatever the case, John Carpenter & Kurt Russell try to recapture that Snake Plissken magic in this beat-for-beat retelling of one of the 80s most enjoyable dystopian adventures. Russell certainly still knows how to Eastwood his voice, and I even dig some of the rare additions (Bruce Campbell's Surgeon General of Beverly Hills), but Pam Grier is no Harry Dean Stanton, Stacey Keach is no Lee Van Cleef, and Georges Corraface is certainly no Isaac Hayes. I would really love to know why Carpenter & crew went for the remake approach instead of breaking out into an original narrative - If it ain't broke, don't fix it? I guess. I don't hate on this film like some, and it's certainly interesting from an experiment perspective (think of an even less successful Psycho retread), but the world certainly deserved a better Snake Escape.
The Benson Interruption of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre: "We're the smell it & touch it kids!" This was a fascinating experience. I'm not sure what I was expecting from Mr. Doug Loves Movies. Something akin to Mystery Science Theater but with more pot jokes. When we got to The Alamo Draft House, The Wife & I discovered that our seats were directly next to Benson. He had his coat over The Wife's seat and said it was his - that "they" were supposed to reserve it for him. Oh, no problem, we just scooched over. A little awkward, but no big deal. Eavesdropping, we could tell that Benson & Graham Elwood were none too pleased with the One Loudon crew. There was a drink mixup apparently and they bitched about the seat reservations for a little bit. When the show finally started, neither of the comedians seemed that into the experience. Mostly they sat back and watched the film, piping in here & there with a few cracks. A couple of times Benson turned to me and asked a questions about the Texas Chainsaw franchise as I had quickly established myself as the Horror Geek in the front row. Hopefully that makes it into the mini episode as he was recoding the show with his iphone. I guess that was cool.
Village of the Damned (Remake): This movie is not bad. It's just frustratingly dull. The town of Midwich experiences a mass fainting spell, and when they awake their women have been seeded with white haired, emotionless, telekinetic assholes. Christopher Reeve is the small town doctor burdened with a child he does not hate nearly enough. Kirstie Alley is the tight lipped government drone who spouts monosyllabic exposition. Mark Hamill is the bible thumper gone rifleman nutjob at the very notion of alien life. Maybe if just one of these actors expressed just an ounce of disturbance at the cataclysm destroying their town then we as an audience could muster up the energy to give a damn. Sadly, it's a snooze.
Drive Angry: "Why does everyone keep hurting me?" Just an absolutely greasy gross bit of exploitation trash cinema that so many nostalgia-fests these days seem to fall short of, Patrick Lussier's blood, bullets, & octane adventure makes no apologies for its absurdity, violence, and all around dark attitude. In tiptop mega-acting form, Nicholas Cage escapes from the prison gates of hell to hunt down and butcher the cult leader responsible for his daughter's gory demise. Billy Burke is that evil sick bastard, and he relishes his femur blade wielding baddie with almost as much sick pleasure as Cage's demon dog. Amber Heard proves she's more than just a pretty face, having as much fun as the boys with her too tough obscenities, and god-killer decimations. But the real standout here is William Fichtner's Accountant. I'm all giggles when Ficthner sniffs waitresses, messes with stoners, & Sunshine Bands his way through a police barricade. It's easy to see the 70s filth inspiration (Race With The Devil & The Devil's Rain immediately spring to mind), but Drive Angry manages to be its own thing thanks to its bottom feeder morality and self-acknowledged silliness. Too bad the rest of America wasn't hip to its Meatloaf charm.
Pacific Rim: The moments when Pacific Rim is nothing more than an animated orgy of Kaiju smackdowns fills this perpetual child with ridiculous amounts of monster movie glee. The penultimate versus match between Gipsy Danger and the Leatherback/Otachi tag team gets the fist pumping - SWORD!!!!!! Totally Mecha Badass! Unfortunately, nearly every moment outside of the cartoon is dullsville. I just do not care about all the unnecessary conflict written into the Jaeger Pilot plotlines. My brother died, my daddy doesn't love me like he loves you, my Idris Alba doesn't trust me with his robots. All aboard the Boo-Hoo-Choo-Choo! Screenwriter Travis Beacham has certainly watched Top Gun a few too many times. I really wish Guillermo Del Toro had squeezed more of the Kaiju black market into the story, or further explored the alien dimension briefly glanced at the climax. Still, robots punching monsters? That's just fun.
Gravity: "I hate space." It's hard to go into a movie you've been reading about for nearly five years without some level of expectation. I am a big, big, big fan of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men & Y Tu Mama Tambien and the idea of him tackling a NASA space mission gone wrong (going OCD with his obsessively long takes) was incredibly appealing. I remember breathing a sigh of relief when the cast went from Robert Downey Jr & Scarlet Johansson to George Clooney & Sandra Bullock. Bullock may not be my favorite actress in the world, but she certainly seems more NASA than Johansson. Then I saw the trailer - Bullock floating around for 90 minutes - I lost a little interest, and I practically had to force myself into the theater. After all, I had already seen Open Water. I lot of whining and fear crying. "In space no one can make you give a crap." Ok, so obviously I was carrying some baggage into the movie. So what do I actually think of Gravity? I think Cuaron is a masterful craftsman, and this is the only film in recent years where I thought the IMAX 3D actually benefited the story. There there are several times in this film where the 3D accentuated the infinite blackness or attributed to the weightlessness. Bullock is solid. But I did not care for her dead kid storyline or whether she could accept death or not. I also did not like Clooney's storytelling astronaut; his bravado rang false in my ears and his dialog seemed to exist just to fill up the 90 minute run time. At times I enjoyed Steven Prince's thrumming score, but at other moments I felt like it committed the very worst of John Williams's ham-fisted manipulation. Gravity is a good enough time, but it's certainly not a film I'm rushing to ever see again.
In The Mouth of Madness: "I am not a piece of fiction!" The last great film of John Carpenter, In The Mouth of Madness also manages to be an essential experience for fans of HP Lovecraft without actually adapting the horror icon's work. Sam Neil is John Trent, an insurance investigator brought in by Bernie Casey to debunk Charlton Heston's claim of the missing million dollar literary institution, Sutter Cane. Think Stephen King, but better selling and literally infectious. Neil & editor Julie Carmen track the author's god complex to the sleepy New Hampshire town of Hobb's End where they encounter dog butchering children, tentacled motel clerks, and your basic army of unspeakable evil. The mid nineties were an abominable time for horror fans, but somehow the genre master managed to crank out one last great hurrah with Madness. Kudos to Carpenter, but I think Sam Neil must take most of the credit for his exceptional portrayal of a crumbling reality. Has there ever been a nastier, more bent explosion of laughter than the gut buster seen at the end credits? I think not.
Machete Kills: "Machete loves everybody." Yeah, well, I don't love Machete. What the hell happened to Robert Rodriguez? Desperado & From Dusk Till Dawn - those are a couple of thoroughly enjoyable blood & guts action romps. But the director has lost himself in his one-man-show approach to filmmaking. We get it, you can do all your crappy effects on your laptop. The endless stream of CG blood & gunfire just makes Machete Kills look like a crappy SyFy Channel knockoff. I'll take a dozen Piranhanacondas over this tired mess. There might have been a little fun mined in Grindhouse & the first Machete, but this sequel plays like an MTV Movie Awards skit dragged on too long. Charlie Sheen...Mel Gibson...I know you don't have anywhere else to go, but you should have stayed away from this dreck. Danny Trejo - you get a pass. You are great in everything. But Rodriguez has no idea what makes trash cinema so damn enjoyable. This is pretender nonsense. And I need you to leave moviemaking alone for a while. Sin City 2 can stay under a rock with you.