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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Fright Fest

Written by Kirk Baird

With Halloween upon us, I put together a quick list of some horror films sure to deliver some scares.

The Shining (1980): So what if Stephen King dislikes Stanley Kubrick’s take on his horror novel — so much so he wrote another version as a TV miniseries? The master director’s musings of the psychology of fear remains terrifying on its own as husband-father Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is induced into madness by the spirits of a Colorado hotel closed up for the winter and goes after his family.

The Ring (2002): Gore Verbinski (the first three Pirates of the Caribbean movies) imported the scary-as-hell Japanese film Ringu with almost equally chilling results, as Naomi Watts confronts the vindictive spirit behind an urban legend about a video tape that delivers death to all who watch it.

The Woman in Black (2012): In his first post-Harry Potter role, Daniel Radcliffe plays a young lawyer sent to an English village to shore up the will of a recently deceased woman. What he discovers, in this scare fest that specializes in bump-in-the-night shivers, is a vengeful ghost terrorizing the town.

The Blair Witch Project (1999): An initial sensation when it hit theatres with a then-revolutionary viral marketing campaign, it was strong word-of-mouth that kept new audiences coming. The film offers a slow scare, much like a really good ghost story, as three twenty-somethings decide to make a movie about a legendary witch, get lost in the woods, and wind up becoming part of the horrifying legend.

Paranormal Activity (2007): This low-budget single-camera ghost film, which started the now annual October franchise, borrows a lot from The Blair Witch Project, including a horror movie that offers only a few frights along the way, saving its biggest scare for the end as a boyfriend and girlfriend confront a poltergeist living in their condo.

Suspiria (1977): Italian filmmaker Dario Argento (Once Upon the Time in the West) directed this intense and frightening tale of an American ballet dancer played by Jessica Harper who travels to Europe to join a famous ballet school and discovers it’s a front for a coven of evil witches. Look for a remake of this critically acclaimed cult classic next year.

The Thing (1982): Thirty years after its release, John Carpenter’s classic remake remains chilling with its “who can you trust?” vibe. The creature effects still hold up, and Kurt Russell has never been better as one of the Americans trapped in an Antarctic research station with a bloodthirsty alien that can assume the form of any animal or man it comes in contact with.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Ruby Sparks Is Not Your Typical Romantic Comedy

Written by Kirk Baird

Ruby Sparks, the best non-superhero film of the summer and just out on DVD and Blu-ray, bucks many conventions of Hollywood romantic comedies. For one, it eschews the love-conquers-all motif of most romcoms. In this tale, love is the problem.

Ruby Sparks stars Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan—hardly household names, as is usually the case with studio romcoms. But as a real-life couple, their onscreen interactions have a life and physicality to them usually missing in romantic comedies. There is a subtle but distinct difference between chemistry and believability; an onscreen couple may look good together, but you may never believe them as a perfect match. Dano and Kazan pass muster in both categories.

Besides, the real star of the film is the screenplay by Kazan, the granddaughter of famed director Elia Kazan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire). Ruby Sparks has the wit and emotional heft of a Nora Ephron story, and the roots of a Twilight Zone episode as a brilliant but struggling young author named Calvin Weir-Fields (Dano) writes his ideal woman, Ruby Sparks (Kazan), into existence and discovers that he has complete control over her by whatever he types.

Calvin’s older brother Harry (Chris Messina in spot-on comic relief) believes Ruby is the perfect woman, one whose personality, mood, and sexual appetite can be changed at any whim by her creator. But as Ruby and Calvin’s relationship transitions from the honeymoon to the “normal” phase of love and its myriad complications, Calvin’s darker side emerges, and his need to control her threatens to undo both of them.

Ruby Sparks is funny and sweet, but there’s a persistent thread of dramatic tension running through the film, given Calvin’s godlike powers over Ruby. It’s only a matter of time before this control and his own foibles get the best of him. His final confrontation with Ruby, as he bangs commands into his typewriter, controlling her like a master puppeteer, is wrenching and horrifying and also heartbreaking, as his deep love for her is reduced to petty jealousy and cruel rage, while she can only look on, as his puppet, powerless to stop him.

Annette Bening has a small but nice turn as Calvin’s mother and Antonio Banderas as her artistic lover. Theirs is a loving relationship between equals that Calvin quietly aspires to but knows he can never have with Ruby.

There’s strong subtext in Ruby Sparks, which co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris bring out in subtle ways. This real-life couple also teamed up to direct Little Miss Sunshine, which also featured Dano, and Ruby Sparks is a similarly quirky comedy-drama, only with a darker third act. Ruby Sparks is a complicated love story that doesn’t settle for easy resolutions. And it’s all the better—and more realistic—for it.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Lincoln Brings 16th U.S. President Back to Film

Written by Kirk Baird

With Steven Spielberg’s much-anticipated Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, coming to theatres Nov. 9, it’s worth noting the popularity of the 16th president in film. Some of the more notable examples:

Abraham Lincoln (1930): D.W. Griffith (Birth of a Nation) explores the life and turbulent times of Lincoln’s presidency in a series of episodic vignettes, with Walter Huston as the president. While certainly not the best work of this pioneering director, Abraham Lincoln does mark Griffith’s first use of sound in film.

Young Mr. Lincoln (Criterion) (1939): John Ford directs and Henry Fonda stars in this decade-long look at the life of Abraham Lincoln — years before he made a name for himself — as he moves from a Kentucky cabin to Springfield, Illinois, to begin his law practice. In the course of the film he takes on the biggest court case of his career, endures the death of his girlfriend, courts future wife Mary Todd, and jumps into politics.

Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940): A year after Young Mr. Lincoln was released, director John Cromwell (Since You Went Away, The Prisoner of Zenda) similarly explores the early days of Lincoln’s life, while expanding his film to include all the major events leading up to his election as president.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012): Seth Grahame-Smith wrote the screenplay based on his graphic novel about Lincoln’s sworn vengeance as a boy against a menacing band of vampires roaming the countryside and what he’s willing to do to protect his family and his nation against the threat, even as president. Grahame-Smith’s work impressively blends real history with fiction-as-commentary, and Tim Burton’s influence is felt, even as just a producer.

The Conspirator (2010): While not a film about Lincoln per se, this Robert Redford-directed drama examines his assassination and those who plotted it. The film stars Robin Wright as Mary Surratt, who was hanged for being a co-conspirator in the assassination, and James McAvoy as Frederick Aiken, the attorney reluctantly given the task of defending her. Through the course of Aiken’s investigation, he comes to believe in Surratt’s innocence and fights desperately to save her.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Rescuers and Its Sequel Showcase Disney's Evolution

Written by Kirk Baird

Released in 1977, The Rescuers is a nearly forgotten film from the waning days of Disney’s “silver age” of animation, and proved to be the last big hit for the studio in a decade-plus to come.

Also overlooked is The Rescuers’ sequel, The Rescuers Down Under, from 1990 as part of the early renaissance days of the Disney, beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid. The Rescuers Down Under’s marriage of computer and hand-drawn animation also marked the first project in the partnership between Disney and Pixar.

Both films were recently released in a single Blu-ray combo-film package that also features a few nice extras, most notably a making-of featurette on The Rescuers.

The Rescuers is the story of two mice, brave Miss Bianca (Eva Gabor) and timid Bernard (Bob Newhart), who are members of the international Rescue Aid Society. When the society learns of a young orphan’s desperate pleas for help after being kidnapped, Miss Bianca volunteers to lead the rescue mission. She requests that Bernard, the Rescue Aid Society’s janitor, accompany her. The two mice fly via albatross to the swamp where 6-year-old Penny is being kept by the wicked Madame Medusa (Geraldine Page) and her business partner Mr. Snoops (Joe Flynn). The villainous pair is after the Devil’s Eye, the world’s largest diamond, and they need someone small and slender — like Penny — to retrieve it from a cave.

The film is clever, funny, and offers a nice message of bravery and friendship. There’s also a nostalgic charm to its animation, with the sketches and outlines of characters often still visible frame to frame; in today’s animation, if the characters were even hand-drawn, such early penciled remnants by the artists surely would be digitally erased. Even the songs, performed by Shelby Flint, bring a 1970s vibe.

Watching the films back to back is also a great segue from classic to the new style of animation.

And while The Rescuers Down Under holds up well when compared to its more modern CG brethren, its story and scope also make this a sequel on par with its predecessor. Miss Bianca (Gabor) and Bernard (Newhart) are back, this time on a rescue mission to the Australian Outback to rescue a young boy named Cody abducted by the villainous poacher Percival McLeach (George C. Scott). Cody has befriended a rare golden eagle, which Percival covets as a means to make him rich.

Everything is bigger about The Rescuers Down Under when compared to The Rescuers, including a collection of helpful animals to aid in the rescue: Wilbur the albatross with his aching back (John Candy, who steals the film), the derring-do of Jake the kangaroo mouse, and manic Frank, the frill-necked lizard. The spectacular animation is bigger in scope and depth of field than anything Disney had attempted previously, and certainly pushing the boundaries of what was possible two decades ago.

While neither film is a true animated classic by the Mouse House, they’re excellent second-tier Disney works. And packaged together they make for a fascinating glance back at once was, and what was to come.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The Many Faces of Carrie

Written by Kyle Slagley

High school is arguably one of life’s most awkward times. Not only are you expected to get up at the crack of dawn to listen to Mr. Philips drone on about the coefficient of friction as it relates to the physics of gravity (or something like that), but you’re also supposed to discover who you are socially, physically, and professionally!

All of this can be torture to even the hardiest of teenagers, but in his usual – and brilliantly twisted – way, Stephen King made it even more difficult for Carrie White. Even those that have never read the novel are familiar with the basic premise of Carrie, the debut novel that launched King’s infamous career as horror-storyteller-extraordinaire.

Carrie is an awkward and unpopular teenager struggling against the incessant teasing and taunting of her classmates. Upon discovering her telekinetic powers, she gets even with her vicious classmates in a violent and bloody melee that leaves her small town in ruins.

When King wrote the novel while living in a trailer, he concluded that he had written a flop. He was pinching pennies so tightly that in 1974 his publisher had to send a telegram to tell him the book had been accepted because he’d had his phone line disconnected to save money. Carrie would go on to sell over 15 million copies and launch his career.

The film adaptation starred Sissy Spacek and would come out in 1976 to mostly positive reviews. The film is now widely regarded as one of the best classic horror movies ever made and is one of the few horror films to ever receive multiple Oscar nominations. King himself was quoted as saying Carrie was “a good movie.”

Even though Carrie is now 40 years old, the fascination with the story is still very prevalent. On September 25, Ghostlight Records released the studio album of Carrie: The Musical, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top Broadway charts. The album is from the 2012 revival cast and is the first time the show has been released on CD; the Original Broadway Cast of 1988 never recorded a soundtrack.

The Off-Broadway revival of the musical ran for 34 previews and 46 performances earlier this year, closing on April 8. Despite the relatively short life of the revival, it fared much better than the original, which in 1988 cost over $7 million to produce and closed after 16 previews and 5 performances – the most expensive flop in Broadway history at the time.

As if all that weren’t enough, the film industry has decided that one film isn’t enough. Next year, a remake will be released starring Chloe Moretz as Carrie. Though the trailer ( reveals virtually no details about the film, it is said to be “a more faithful adaptation” than the 1976 version, which deviated from the book significantly.

Though the remake will obviously benefit King, after hearing about it he supposedly said “Why, when the movie was so good?” We’ll have to wait and see what his reaction is after the film releases on March 15, 2013.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Twelve Picks Up Where The Passage Left Off

In 2010, Justin Cronin released his novel The Passage. Beginning in a plausible near future on the verge of a breakthrough in human longevity, the book then delves into the dystopic far future created when that breakthrough instead unleashes twelve vampire-like beings (eventually known as “virals”) into the world.

Cronin, a graduate of Harvard University and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, brought a credible reputation to his foray into the horror genre. He was awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002 for Mary and O’Neil, a “novel in stories.” Before The Passage, he was known as a writer of mainstream literary fiction. Indeed, The Passage garnered strong reviews, being called “one of the creepiest books of 2010” by the National Post and “the best book of the summer” by USA Today. It drew comparisons to both The Stand and The Road. Readers responded as well, with the book debuting at #3 on the New York Times best seller list.

Of course, success on that scale is rarely contained solely on the page. The Passage will be adapted into a movie, produced by Ridley Scott and written by John Logan (who wrote the screenplay for Gladiator). That’s tentatively scheduled to be in theatres sometime in 2013.

Before The Passage was even released, it was announced that it would be the first volume of a trilogy. The second novel, The Twelve, hit shelves on Tuesday of this week; the third book, The City of Mirrors, is due in 2014.

The plot of The Twelve shifts back and forth in time. On one hand, it follows up the story told in The Passage, as the characters deal with the events in that book and forge on in their quest to vanquish the virals and return their world to some semblance of normalcy. It also introduces a cast of characters trying to cope in the initial aftermath of the outbreak, in the near future setting initially set up in the beginning of The Passage.

Anticipation for The Twelve has been strong, and what could be better as Halloween approaches than a creepy vampire tale? Make sure you have copies of The Passage and The Twelve for your patrons to enjoy.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

R.L. Stine Takes Aim at Adults

Written by Kyle Slagley

Ask anyone who grew up in the ‘90s about R. L. Stine and you’ll probably get responses about talking ventriloquist dummies, cameras that predict horrifying futures, and worms that are out to get you. Even if you were one of the few that didn’t read the Goosebumps books, chances are you still watched the TV show and had a couple Goosebumps folders tucked in your Trapper Keeper.

Just like his loyal readers from 15 years ago, R. L. Stine has transitioned to the world of adulthood, releasing Red Rain last week: a sometimes disturbingly graphic horror novel about a well-meaning travel writer that takes in twin boys after a hurricane demolishes the island she’s visiting.

Unlike Stine’s YA books, the boys turn out to be the source of the terror instead of the heroes that overcome, harboring a creepy and violent attachment to their new mother figure.

Red Rain is not Stine’s first foray into the land of adult fiction. In 2000, he released Superstitious, a story about an attractive college professor who happens to be (surprise!) extremely superstitious, the grad student that falls for him, and the horror that ensues.

Superstitious received mediocre reviews and seems to have been largely forgotten, since a number of news stories are pegging Red Rain as Stine’s adult fiction debut. Stine promptly went back to YA fiction writing, saying it was evidently too early to do an adult novel.

This time Stine fans were more than ready for an adult novel, saying Stine’s talent for mixing plot twists with naïve protagonists translated well. You won’t want to pick up Red Rain right before bedtime, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Prometheus Dazzles on Blu-ray

Written by Kirk Baird

On the back cover of the just-released Prometheus Blu-ray disc, it clearly states, “Questions will be answered” by the film. What the back cover doesn’t state, however, is that many new questions will also arise from this movie.

This wildly ambitious science fiction film set in the Alien universe — though it’s not considered a proper prequel — proved confounding and, perhaps, disappointing to some fans of Ridley Scott’s 1979 masterpiece precisely for those reasons. The film addressed some of the held-over queries from the original Alien — most notably about the mummified remains of the “space jockey” creature the humans discover before encountering the roomful of eggs — but then yields just as many questions, including who are the space jockeys?

In one of the movie’s two separate commentary tracks, Prometheus cowriter Damon Lindelof said he likes ambiguity in his movies and to leave audiences guessing. This, of course, was the hallmark of the show he helped create, Lost, which was all about piling on questions after questions, much to viewer dismay.

There is much to discuss and deliberate in Prometheus as well, as two scientists, Elizabeth Shaw and Charlie Holloway (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, respectively), believe they’ve discovered proof that humans were not only visited by aliens thousands of years ago, but also were created by these “engineers” of humanity.

A small group of scientists, including Elizabeth and Charlie, and crew assemble for the long voyage aboard the ship Prometheus to the engineers’ world to meet our makers.

Naturally, when the crew arrives, nothing goes as planned. The engineers are long since dead. And it appears they were using this barren moon as a base to house biological weapons to use against us.

“Sometimes in order to create, one must destroy,” notes the android David (Michael Fassbender), who acts as the ship’s caretaker and also as catalyst to a more sinister agenda.

Fassbender’s emotionally cold and calculating David steals the film and his presence remains on screen even when he’s not around, while Rapace, best known to audiences through the original Swedish version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, does her best Sigourney Weaver as the mentally and physically tough heroine who is put through hell.

The effects in Prometheus are outstanding — the lunar landscapes in particular are stunning — yet, in a strange twist, the science-fiction/occasionally horror film feels bigger on the smaller screen than it did in the theatre.

An added benefit to the Blu-ray/DVD release is the ability for back-to-back multiple viewings of the film as well as rewind and pause, which helps illuminate plot points often missed in the theatrical showing. It’s not that Prometheus is difficult to follow; rather, there’s a lot going on, and smaller moments sometimes are swallowed up by the spectacle of it all.

Of particular interest will be the separate commentaries, which also feature John Spaihts, the original screenwriter, as well as Scott. For fans of Prometheus and the Alien universe — and even those who would like some answers — the writers’ and the director’s commentary tracks are worth the time, and help flesh out the story beyond what made it to screen. Scott’s commentary in particular indicates how much of the film was shaped and constructed in the editing room. The Blu-ray release also includes nearly 40 minutes’ worth of deleted scenes, including an expanded beginning and ending to the film, along with optional commentary by Prometheus editor Pietro Scalia.

By the end of these commentaries and other extras, questions will remain. Take heart that those queries may be answered in the Prometheus sequel Scott will direct for 2014 and in a third film the director would like to see made as well. Or, maybe not.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Taken 2 the Latest in a Long Line of Revenge Films

Written by Kirk Baird

Liam Neeson as retired CIA agent Bryan Mills in 2008’s Taken thought his troubles were over after turning the tables on his daughter’s kidnappers. But the surviving Albanian kidnappers return for revenge in Taken 2. With audiences responding with a healthy $50 million haul over Taken 2’s first weekend, here are just a few other revenge-minded films.

Gladiator (2000): Russell Crowe’s Maximus is a well-respected and successful Roman general, whose wife and son are killed, and he is beaten and sold into slavery by the emperor’s power-hungry son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). Maximus gets his revenge by becoming the empire’s toughest gladiator who battles his way to face off against Commodus.

Pale Rider (1985): Seven bad men are hired to terrorize a small mining community into surrendering their gold to a corrupt landowner. Then a preacher with a mysterious past and a connection to the seven mercenaries shows up to help the miners. As the film’s poster said, “And hell followed with him.”

Death Wish (1974): Thugs rape and kill Charles Bronson’s wife. He then turns into a vigilante killing machine to exact his revenge.

Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (2003): Uma Thurman is out for payback against those members of her assassination team who left her for dead in Quentin Tarantino’s two-part epic tale of vengeance.

I Spit on Your Grave (1978): In this exploitive horror-drama, a single woman goes to the peaceful countryside to write a book, and instead finds terror, as she’s raped and left for dead by three men. She survives the attack and makes it her mission in life that her assailants will die in gory and violent ways.

Leon (1994): A 12-year-old girl’s family is ruthlessly murdered by corrupt DEA agents, and she hides out with the only man who can help her with her plans for revenge: a hired killer. Natalie Portman is the girl, French actor Jean Reno is her new guardian and killer, and Gary Oldman is the bad guy, with Luc Besson (Taken and Taken 2, The Fifth Element) directing.

Man on Fire (2004): Denzel Washington plays a retired marine assigned to protect a 9-year-old girl. After she is kidnapped and held for ransom, he goes to extraordinary — and extraordinarily violent — lengths to save her.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Cast Elevates Peace, Love & Misunderstanding

Written by Kirk Baird

Peace, Love & Misunderstanding is a straight-line family drama from director Bruce Beresford (Driving Miss Daisy, Tender Mercies) about a soon-to-be-divorced mother of two who seeks comfort and answers from her estranged mother of 20 years. The film, new to Blu-ray and DVD, doesn’t advance beyond a fairly routine and predictable plot of struggling people who quickly find help and love in the arms of someone else. It’s Peace, Love & Misunderstanding’s excellent cast, however, that elevates the drama beyond its play-it-safe conventions.

Catherin Keener (Being John Malkovich, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) plays Diane, a tough career-focused attorney whose love deflated from her marriage years ago. When her husband (Kyle MacLachlan) drops the bomb that he wants a divorce, she tells him she’s taking their kids with her to see her estranged mother Grace (Jane Fonda), a flower child still reveling in her free-spirit days as a youth at her rural home in Woodstock, NY.

Elizabeth Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) is the oldest child Zoe, a student at Columbia University who is quick to pass judgment on anyone or anything that offends her rather cynical sensibilities. Nat Wolff is Jake, the nerdy high school son perpetually with a video camera in hand with aspirations of being the next Werner Herzog. Under the wise counsel and gentle prodding of Grace, life turns around for the struggling family. Diane meets a charming musician and carpenter (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who helps her mellow out, Zoe meets a sweet-natured butcher (Chace Crawford) who helps her lower her defenses, and Jake meets an equally nerdy girl with a thing for artists.

Keener and Morgan have an undeniable spark and play off each other quite well, and Olsen is an actress really coming into her own. But Peace, Love & Misunderstanding is Fonda’s vehicle all the way. She owns the film from the moment the family pulls up in her front yard and finds her spinning pottery. It’s a rich role for an actress who doesn’t work as often as she should, a fun, quirky character for Fonda to dig into and exploit for some scene-stealing moments.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Cult Films Find Audiences on DVD

Written by Kirk Baird

The Princess Bride recently marked its 25th anniversary. Rob Reiner’s funny and sweet celebration of fairy tales, based on William Goldman’s novel, retains its charm all these years later. It’s also, along with another Reiner film, This Is Spinal Tap, a cult classic.

Contrary to widespread belief, cult films don’t have to be so awful as to be considered kitschy great by a host of dedicated fans, like Plan 9 from Outer Space and, more recently, Showgirls. What they do have in common is a failed, disappointing, or barely successful theatrical release followed by a rabid following that develops over time, often through video and DVD or midnight movies. Some other cult classics include The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Eraserhead, the Evil Dead trilogy, Harold and Maude, The Big Lebowski, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Scarface, and Heavy Metal. Many cult classics are obvious; here are some more obscure films with devoted followings.

The Gods Must be Crazy (1980)
This South African comedy written and directed by Jamoie Uys stars N!xau as Xi (pronounced “key”), the leader of an isolated and primitive family of tribesmen in the Kalahari Desert whose world is turned upside down when a glass Coke bottle carelessly thrown from an airplane above lands near his home. Having never seen glass before, the tribe believes it to be a gift from the gods, but when Xi’s family begins squabbling and fighting over the bottle he decides to return the divine present by throwing it off the edge of the Earth. In the course of Xi’s incredible adventures to discard the bottle he encounters a clumsy white biologist (Marius Weyers) and his would-be girlfriend who try to help him, confusing and wondrous pieces of 20th century technology such as cars, and even war-minded rebels who, despite their guns and political mission, function as keystone cop-like comic relief. Uys’s film is a sweet, simple comedy with subtle commentary on our modern world as seen through the eyes of a stranger walking through it. There was a sequel, The Gods Must be Crazy II, in 1989.

Wizards (1977)
Really, almost any film by animator Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat, The Lord of the Rings, American Pop) could be considered a cult classic, but this post-apocalyptic tale of a struggle between two wizards — the good and rather randy Avatar (Bob Holt) and the evil Blackwolf (Steve Gravers) who plans to control the world through the ancient weaponry from the 20th century — was a popular midnight film, which may give it extra cult film cred. The dialogue hasn’t aged well; it’s very much a film of the 1970s, despite its futuristic setting. But the early rotoscope animation blended with traditional hard-drawn characters as well as the psychedelic backgrounds remain fascinating attempts at breaking ground in a brave new style of adult animation.

Zabriskie Point (1970)
Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni explored the monumental shift in youth culture in the late 1960s and its disillusionment with authority as well as social alienation in this story of protests, violence, and two twentysomethings bonded briefly through love, sex, and spirituality in the desert. The film offers subtext on a wide range of subjects — politics, war, civil rights, and consumerism — and climaxes in the youthful fantasies of fiery explosions of a home, followed by the slow-motion destruction of the objects inside (food, clothes, a refrigerator) to the score of Pink Floyd’s psychedelic rage “Come in Number 51, Your Time Is Up.” Critics bashed Zabriskie Point when it was released and it quickly vanished from theatres. For decades the film was deemed a failure, but in recent years it’s experienced a substantial critical reassessment. This is hardly news to many film students and movie geeks, who consider Antonioni’s counter-culture work a masterpiece.

Time Bandits (1981)
This isn’t Terry Gilliam’s first solo movie — nor is it his best — but this dark children’s fable about a boy who hitches a ride with a group of time-traveling dwarves on the run from the Supreme Being and the Evil Genius is a great introduction to the filmmaker’s inspired and edgy Grimm Brothers style of the fantastic. Gilliam has been inconsistent with his films, but when he clicks (Brazil, 12 Monkeys, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), as he does here, there’s simply no other director like him. Which is why his fans continually anticipate his work; even with a recent track record of largely noble failures, Gilliam always teases a return to past greatness. Time Bandits is Gilliam breaking free from his Monty Python roots, even though it was co-written by fellow Pythoner Michael Palin, and features cameos by Palin and John Cleese, also of Monty Python. The cast also features all-star cameos playing recognizable historical figures including Sean Connery as King Agamemnon and Ian Holm as Napoleon.

An American Werewolf in London (1981)
John Landis was known best for directing comedies hits Animal House and The Blues Brothers when he tackled An American Werewolf in London. Not coincidentally, he effectively merged comedy — albeit rather dark — with horror, and thus inspired a new wave of films and filmmakers. An American Werewolf in London stars David Naughton (best known for his Dr Pepper ads in the 1970s) as David Kessler, one of two American college students traveling through England who are attacked by a werewolf plaguing the countryside. David’s friend dies, while David suffers an even grimmer fate: transforming into a werewolf during full moons. British actress Jenny Agutter (Logan’s Run) plays David’s girlfriend, who desperately tries to help him with his unique condition. Rick Baker won the first Oscar for best makeup for his work in creating the monster. “Blue Moon,” the closing pop song as the film ends and the credits roll, remains one of the more-inspired music choices in the last few decades. There was a sequel in 1997, An American Werewolf in Paris.

Flash Gordon (1980)
The much-despised Showgirls was a cult film even before the credits rolled. But Flash Gordon, an obvious attempt by producer Dino De Laurentiis to cash in on the Star Wars-sci-fi phenomenon in the 1970s, earned its place as a cult favorite. The film is a revival of the classic Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s, only in glorious color and with wildly inventive sets and costumes, as star quarterback Flash Gordon (Sam Jones), journalist Dale Arden (Melody Anderson), and scientist Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) rocket to the mysterious planet Mongo to stop its evil ruler Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) from destroying Earth. The mixture of camp with classic science fiction failed to attract audiences, but through the years fans and critics have rediscovered Flash Gordon. This summer Seth MacFarlane even referenced the film throughout his comedy smash Ted, which featured an appearance by Jones as himself. Rock band Queen handled the soundtrack and, fittingly, scored a cult hit as well with the track “Flash.”

Freaked (1993)
Alex Winter (Bill from Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and the MTV sketch comedy The Idiot Box) co-wrote and co-directed this bizarre comedy about a mad scientist who uses a special chemical to transform people into strange creatures for his freak show. Winter plays a popular and egotistical actor named Ricky Coogan turned into a hideous beast. The cast also features Mr. T as a bearded lady, Megan Ward and Michael Stoyanov as an activist and Ricky’s best friend, respectively, who are joined together as Siamese Twins, Bobcat Goldthwait as Sockhead — a man with a hand and sock puppet for a head — and Randy Quaid as the evil scientist behind the madness, Elijah C. Skuggs. Worth mentioning is Academy Award-nominated John Hawkes (Teardrop in Winter’s Bone), unrecognizable in makeup and costume, playing Cowboy, a cow-man. This anything-goes comedy has a 1980s vibe to its absurdist humor — think 1984’s The Toxic Avenger — and was to be released by 20th Century Fox, but a change in studio leadership proved disastrous for the film. The studio’s new president ordered the film’s title changed from the original Hideous Mutant Freekz to Freaked and its budget slashed. After testing poorly with preview audiences, the comedy was given a quick release into only a few theaters and then pulled for good. Freaked may have died in the cinemas, but video, cable, and DVD successfully resurrected it.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans (2009)
Werner Herzog’s no-boundaries drama about a cop gone bad isn’t a cult film yet, but it should be. This isn’t a sequel to Abel Ferrara’s The Bad Lieutenant from 1992, rather a companion piece or, perhaps, a tribute. In fact, the two Bad Lieutenants share few similarities, other than having the title character break all manner of rules while battling drug addiction, and featuring terrific leading performances by Harvey Keitel in the 1992 film, and a deliriously over-the-top Nicolas Cage in the 2009 version. Cage is Terence McDonagh, a New Orleans police detective injured on the job who then becomes addicted to painkillers and cocaine. This leads to a reckless lifestyle that gets Terence involved with a prostitute (Eva Mendes) and a ruthless drug dealer he must stop. It’s when he begins an investigation into the gruesome murder of a family that Terence is offered a chance at redemption. But will he take it? Herzog sets The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans in struggling post-Katrina New Orleans, and loads the film with social commentary, often questioning the roles of protector and criminal, and the intentions of the good and the bad. But this is Cage’s film all the way. His unhinged performances have become cliché, but that’s usually as much about the quality of the project he’s involved in. Herzog gives Cage the green light to push the boundaries as far as he can, and the actor takes the director at his word. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call — New Orleans is better, and certainly more memorable, for it. Consider this a late 2000s version of the deliriously violent Scarface from 1983, written by Oliver Stone and starring Al Pacino — only without as many great lines or f-bombs.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Phantom Still Haunts After All This Time

Written by Kyle Slagley

Twenty-six years ago today, in London’s West End, Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman took the stage for the first time in what would become one of the most iconic musicals of all time. This musical, which would receive pop-culture nods by everything from SpongeBob to R. L. Stine, would eventually go on to win seven Tony Awards and three Laurence Olivier Awards.

I am of course referring to Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera, with Crawford playing Erik the Phantom and Brightman as Christine. Phantom has since become the longest-running Broadway show in history, celebrating its 10,275th performance tonight at the Majestic Theatre, and is the third-longest-running show in London.

As a performer and theatre fan, Phantom holds a special place in my heart, being one of the musicals that first drew me into the Broadway world. In fact I can’t help but be jealous of friends performing to sold-out crowds at my alma mater, the University of Kentucky, in UK Opera Theatre’s production.

Over the years there have been a number of stage and film renditions of the show, all based on the novel by Gaston Leroux, originally published in French as Le Fantôme de L’Opera in 1910. While the book has been wholly overshadowed by the theatre and film renditions of the story, some maintain that the original novel accents underlying character traits lost in translation and that the book is well worth the time.

I recently discovered a copy of the original silent version of the film from 1925 with Lon Chaney as the Phantom and Mary Philbin as Christine and found myself completely entranced by it. It’s amazing how a film made nearly 100 years ago can still be so amazingly eerie; it captured me in ways that modern horror flicks simply cannot do.

Other film adaptations were made in later years, with Claude Rains playing the Phantom in the 1943 version and Herbert Lom in 1962. The most recent film adaptation was released in 2004, this time starring Gerard Butler as the reclusive Phantom.

Although both the 1943 and 1962 versions landed mostly positive reviews, critics decried the 2004 film as boring and flat. Personally, I didn’t think it was all that bad, certainly not as horrendous as some. The sheer lavishness of the sets and the costumes were enough to keep me entertained — and when played in Blu-Ray HD, the aesthetics are more impressive than when I saw it in theatres.

The Original Broadway Cast soundtrack remains my favorite recording and has sold over five million copies worldwide. In October of last year, Lloyd Webber and producer Cameron Mackintosh assembled a star cast at the Royal Albert Hall for the 25th anniversary production. That production ran for two nights only but was recorded and later released on CD, DVD, and Blu-Ray.

Sir Andrew has tacked his name onto some of the biggest musicals Broadway and London have ever seen, and I can attest that they are as much fun to perform as they are to watch. That said, Phantom may have been the show that defined his legacy, and I for one have never heard pipe organs the same way.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Celebrating 50 Years of Bond

Written by Kirk Baird

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Dr. No, the first James Bond film, released Oct. 5, 1962. The film, of course, starred Sean Connery, a handsome and masculine actor who only vaguely resembled what Bond creator Ian Fleming initially envisioned his British super spy to be: a slightly more dashing version of American jazz singer-musician Hoagy Carmichael.

There are 25 Bond films, including November’s Skyfall, as well as the 1967 007 parody Casino Royale starring David Niven, and 1983’s Never Say Never Again featuring the second return of Connery to the role, this time after more than a decade away. Incidentally, the latter two films are the only Bond movies not produced by Eon Productions, and therefore not considered by some to be part of the official franchise.

In popular culture a person’s preference of Bond actors has been a source of debate. Google “james bond actor poll” and you’ll find multiple solicitations. For many, it’s the first who remains the best.

Connery’s blend of tough and sexy, a womanizer with a penchant for guns, gadgets, shaken martinis, and survival set the template for all the actors to follow. The Scottish Connery played Bond through five films in six years, before Australian model-actor George Lazenby stepped in with 1969’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Lazenby, who played the secret agent only once before turning down additional Bond movies by choice, remains the forgotten 007 — some would suggest for good reason.

By 1971, Connery returned to Bond in Diamonds Are Forever and was paid handsomely for it, but producers went in a new direction with 1973’s Live and Let Die, casting Roger Moore as Bond. Moore was best known to audiences for his role as Simon Templar in the long-running BBC series The Saint. In fact, the show, which aired from 1962-1970, kept Moore out of the running as Connery’s original replacement in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.

With Moore aboard, the film’s producers lightened the serious demeanour of the super agent, turning Bond into a debonair playboy with women and quips to spare, especially as he terminated a film’s chief villain and his henchmen.

Moore is also unfairly saddled with what is a notable shift in the quality of the Bond films themselves, as producers altered the more dramatic tone of the Connery movies, often in favor of riding current cinema trends. 1979’s Moonraker, largely considered the weakest film in the series (I wholeheartedly agree), was an obvious attempt to cash in on the Star Wars craze with a silly-even-for-its-time space laser battle over Earth. Moore still stuck around for three more Bond outings, and a total of seven films through 12 years, the latter being a record for the series.

When the English Moore retired from the series at the age of 58, Timothy Dalton was brought in as the new 007 for 1987’s The Living Daylights. Dalton, by then 43, had originally been offered the role of James Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service but the British actor turned it down, feeling he was too young for the part at the age of 25. Perhaps by being older and wiser when he finally accepted the role, he brought a maturity and grit to the films that had been missing during the Moore years. In License to Kill, for instance, Bond resigns from the Secret Service to exact revenge against the drug dealer who seriously injured his CIA friend and killed his friend’s wife.

The deadly serious tone of Dalton’s film, while significantly closer to Fleming’s novels, was met with mixed reviews and good but not great audience reception. Dalton, who had signed on for three films, made two of them and then opted to leave the franchise after a lengthy hiatus between Bond movies.

Rumours had swirled about Pierce Brosnan joining the exclusive club for Bond actors after Moore stepped down. Brosnan, however, was contractually obligated to the NBC series Remington Steele, which essentially launched the Irish actor’s career, so Dalton was cast instead. With Dalton retired from Bond, Brosnan seized the opportunity with 1995’s GoldenEye, offering a 007 lighter in tone than Dalton’s, existing on the Bond continuum somewhere between Connery’s man’s man and Moore’s ladies’ man. He stayed with the franchise for four successful films. Most assumed he’d be back for a fifth Bond, but Brosnan ultimately retired from the role, just as rumours suggested producers were considering going younger (read: edgier) for the part.

After four years away from the screen, Bond returned in 2006 with Casino Royale and Daniel Craig in the role. It was indeed a grittier Bond that drew influences from the new and more violent super-agent Bourne series, with English actor Craig offering the most human 007 yet. Out were one-liners and in was raw physicality, including a torture scene with Bond tied naked to a chair and whipped from underneath. Audiences and critics welcomed the fresh approach to the aging series as well as the first blond Bond. Craig’s Casino Royale is the highest-grossing film in the franchise, with a nearly $595 million haul worldwide. 2008’s Quantum of Solace was nearly as successful.

While villains could never kill Bond, MGM nearly did, forcing the agent to take a hiatus as the studio sorted through its financial mess in 2010. With the studio’s money problems long resolved, Craig as Bond returns to theatres Nov. 6 in Skyfall, along with Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes at the helm and Oscar-winning actor Javier Bardem as the film’s chief villain, Raoul Silva. It was also recently announced that Grammy-winning singer Adele would croon the film’s title song, scheduled for release today as part of the “James Bond Day” celebration. Late last year it was also announced that the 44-year-old Craig has signed on for five additional Bond films, which would make him the longest-running 007 with eight total James Bond movies.

Does your library need more Bond? Check out the Bond 50 box set, containing all 22 Bond films, on both DVD and Blu-ray.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The Avengers Success Continues on Blu-ray

Written by Kirk Baird

There’s a reason why The Avengers was the No. 1 box-office attraction this summer and one of the top films of all time.

It’s a smart and deliriously fun romp that exceeds all expectations — a spectacular achievement in itself considering all the hype surrounding Joss Whedon's superhero epic. His film is the new paradigm for a $250 million popcorn film.

Whedon has concocted a wildly entertaining story loaded with clever one-liners that should satisfy everyone, from die-hard comic geeks to casual moviegoers looking for a few hours of escapism. He also expertly paces the intense action with the occasional quiet moment of drama and introspection, revealing, if only for a moment, the humanity behind the brawn and spandex.

The plot features the return of Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor's step-brother and villain of the first Thor film, who has escaped eternal banishment and is determined to subjugate the human race. The evil Norse demigod has allied himself with a race of alien warriors known as Chitauri. Humans are no match for these beings, so Earth turns to its mightiest heroes for help: Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson)—collectively known as the Avengers.

The heroes are recruited by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson as Samuel L. Jackson), head of S.H.I.E.L.D., a secret U.S. military force.

Whedon is a lifelong comic-book fan who has an affinity for these characters and understands them. He also knows that if you put this many larger-than-life superhumans in one room there are going to be problems: ego clashes, disputes about how to mete out justice, and who's in charge. Before the Avengers smash the enemy, they must first stop battling each other.

Their verbal-turned-physical smackdowns create an underlying thread of dramatic tension throughout much of the movie, and Whedon mines these moments for a surprising amount of humour. The whip-smart banter plays to the strength of Downey, but everyone has their grand moments, with the Hulk topping them all. (Hulk’s crowd-pleasing scene, Whedon noted in his entertaining commentary, represents the crowning achievement in the film, to the point if the filmmaker did nothing else during the two years spent making The Avengers but that moment on screen with the Hulk, he would be happy.)

We've already been introduced to these super-powered, super-skilled warriors, so there isn't a lot of alter-ego backstory to get in the way of the fun. The Avengers is mostly about letting the superheroes be just that on screen, and doing whatever our imaginations, Whedon, and CGI can conjure.

The Blu-ray version of The Avengers features the usual sharp picture and audio from the high-definition transfer. More importantly, the Blu-ray version features a load of extras not on the DVD, including nearly 15 minutes of deleted scenes (mostly character development stuff along with an unfinished action sequence), a gag reel, and an amusing short film called Marvel One-Shot: Item 47 that addresses what happens when an alien weapon leftover from the climactic battle ends up in the hands of would-be bank robbers. Both the DVD and Blu-ray include a featurette on the making of the film.

The Avengers stands alone as the top film of the summer, critically and commercially, for good reason. Whedon has delivered that rare action-packed, special-effects spectacle that is relentless in its eagerness to please and successful beyond its goal.

Believe the hype...and more.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Fall Film Preview

Written by Kirk Baird

With the myriad fall films headed our way, below are 14 movies to look forward to in the coming months.

Oct. 12: Argo: A strong indicator of a film's Oscar chances is the critical buzz it has coming out of the Toronto International Film Festival from mid-September. Argo has that kind of favourable enthusiasm. Ben Affleck directs and stars as a CIA operative who helps lead a crazy rescue operation of U.S. citizens in hiding at the Canadian ambassador’s home in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis by pretending to be a Hollywood film crew. It also stars Bryan Cranston, Alan Arkin, and John Goodman.

Oct. 19: The Sessions: Another film that's enjoying a surge of post-Toronto adulation is The Sessions, the true story of Mark O'Brien, a man mostly confined to an iron lung who seeks love and the loss of his virginity. John Hawkes as O'Brien proves again he belongs in the elite actor category, even if he doesn't have the box office credentials—yet—to back it up. Helen Hunt, who doesn’t appear in many movies these days, makes the best of her screen time with her strongest role yet as the kindly sex therapist O’Brien hires. It’s a sweet, surprisingly funny film that doesn’t claw for easy empathy.

Oct. 26: Cloud Atlas: This adaptation of the previously thought unfilmmable genre-bending novel by David Mitchell left critics in Toronto alternately praising and damning this drama of cause-and-effect linking the fate of people through the centuries. It stars Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Susan Sarandon, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and Hugo Weaving, with Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run) and siblings Lana and Andy Wachowski (The Matrix trilogy) as co-writers and co-directors. Even if this highly ambitious film is flawed, as some contend, it would appear the whole is better than its parts.

Nov. 2:

Flight: Denzel Washington stars as an airline pilot who saves a flight from crashing, and whose life is subsequently turned upside down by the intense media scrutiny that follows. Robert Zemeckis gives up the ghost on his creepy performance-capture animation work and returns to live-action films. The trailers promise an intense drama with a great cast (including John Goodman, Don Cheadle, and Oscar winner Melissa Leo) and a message that offers relevant commentary on today’s media.

Wreck-It Ralph: As a classic video gaming enthusiast I acknowledge my bias for a film that celebrates the days of 8-bit gaming. More than that, I’m excited to see what the film’s talented voice cast, led by John C. Reilly, Jack McBrayer, Sarah Silverman, and Jane Lynch, makes of the whimsical story of a video game baddie (Reilly), weary of his job as villain, who leaves the Donkey Kong-esque game in search of being a hero elsewhere in the arcade. McBrayer plays Wreck-It Ralph’s hero who goes in search of his former nemesis, and Silverman is one of the many colourful video game characters Ralph encounters as he hops from game to game.

Nov. 9: Skyfall: Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Road to Perdition) takes the directorial reins of the latest 007 feature and Daniel Craig returns as the deadly British super spy. While Skyfall leaves behind the unfinished plot threads of Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace, it continues the new Bourne-inspired gritty realism of the Craig-as-Bond films. Javier Bardem, who won an Oscar as the unstoppable killer in No Country for Old Men, is perfectly cast as Bond's new nemesis, Raoul Silva.

Nov. 16: Lincoln: The so-so trailer didn't convince me this is the historical epic I know Steven Spielberg is capable of, but knowing the all-star cast is crowned by Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th U.S. president provides hope there's much more guts and grit to this drama than the he trailer would suggest. Also worth noting: Tony Kushner, who won a Pulitzer for his play Angels in America, wrote Lincoln. He also was co-nominated for a screenplay Oscar for 2005’s tale of retribution and its price, Munich, which Spielberg also directed.

Nov. 21:

Life of Pi: Ang Lee stays in his art-house comfort zone for this anticipated adaptation of Yann Martel's bestselling 2001 fantasy adventure novel of an Indian teenager adrift on the Pacific Ocean in a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger. Early word on this 3-D film is strong, and the visuals and cinematography shown off in Life of Pi’s trailer only enhance my anticipation for the movie.

Silver Linings Playbook: Bradley Cooper recently left behind the world of The Hangover to show off some dramatic acting chops as a bestselling author who stole his popular work from someone else in Words. He continues this dramatic bent as a former teacher who, after being institutionalized, moves in with his parents and works to make amends with his ex-wife. Then another woman with problems of her own (Jennifer Lawrence) enters his life. Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Julia Stiles, and Chris Tucker also star, with David O. Russell, riding high off The Fighter, writing and directing. Russell has a history of films with damaged characters, and Silver Linings Playbook may be his best yet, considering it took top honours at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Nov. 23: Rust and Bone: Marion Cotillard (Inception, The Dark Knight Rises) and Matthias Schoenaerts star in this French drama about a single father who moves in with his sister, a killer whale trainer who experiences a horrific accident that ultimately brings the siblings closer together. The drama is winning raves; expect an Oscar nomination for Cotillard.

Dec. 7: Hyde Park on the Hudson: National treasure Bill Murray is receiving critical accolades for his take on Franklin D. Roosevelt in this quirky drama about the former president and his love affair with his distant cousin Margaret Suckley (Laura Linney). The film takes place in upstate New York with Queen Elizabeth and King George VI visiting FDR for a weekend. Olivia Williams plays Eleanor Roosevelt.

Dec. 14: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: Finally, after years in limbo—decades, really—The Hobbit makes it to the big screen with Peter Jackson again shepherding the project, as well as directing and co-writing the screenplay, based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s beloved work. In addition to featuring some familiar actors from Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, including Ian McKellen as Gandalf and Andy Serkis as Gollum, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey also stars Martin Freeman (British version of The Office) as Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who joins a team of dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) to reclaim treasure stolen by the terrifying dragon Smaug. Jackson said he is expanding The Hobbit to include other characters and stories from Tolkien’s work, and he recently announced that his film adaptation will be split into three movies.

Dec. 21: The Impossible: This gripping drama is the true story of a family's fight to survive the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami in Southeast Asia and its aftermath. The film stars Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor as a husband and wife, along with Tom Holland as the oldest of their sons.

Dec. 25: Django Unchained: There’s always high anticipation for a Quentin Tarantino film, and based on Django Unchained’s trailer this shouldn’t disappoint. Tarantino writes and directs this sure-to-be bloody-violent western of freed slave turned bounty hunter Django (Jamie Foxx) who, with help from his German mentor (Christoph Waltz), sets out to kill a gang of killers and then to rescue his wife from a ruthless Mississippi plantation owner. The film also stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Jonah Hill, Kerry Washington, RZA, and Don Johnson.