The Thursday List: Foreign Film Edition

"Once Upon a Time in the West" (1968)
Not only is the film that almost single-handedly breathed life back into westerns, it is quite likely legendary Italian film director Sergio Leone's best film... and widely regarded as one of the best, if not the best, western movie ever made. The combination of a strong story, interesting characters well portrayed, Leone's directing near-operatic style, and brilliant score by Ennio Morricone is marvelous and really fires on all thrusters. And Henry Fonda as Frank, in my opinion one of the best screen villains in all cinema, is amazing. This film isn't just a must-see for fans of westerns but also for film fans in general. This film is in my Top 100 and the Top 100 of many others as well. Highly recommended.

"The Devil's Backbone" (2001)
A horror film set in Spain in 1939, the last year of the Spanish Civil war, "The Devil's Backbone" is simultaneously a compassionate, heartfelt story of humanity, innocence, comradery, human frailty, and sacrifice and a story of greed, viciousness, corruption, fearful villainy, war, and murder. And a ghost story. Guillermo del Toro's work here delivers both a remarkable elegance and a pronounced and relentless dread. This film is in my Top 30 and is held in very high regard by a wide swath of moviegoers as well. It's a horror film, and beautiful, that you would do yourself a real favor to watch. Highly recommended.

"The Third Man" (1949)
At the crossroads of post-WW2 Germany, while the Cold War escalates almost quietly, a pulp novelist arrives to visit a friend and finds far more than a bargained for. "The Third Man" is regarded by many to be the best British film of the 20th century, and I am not inclined to disagree. It was brilliantly written by Graham Greene, skillfully and creatively directed by Carol Reed, and Orson Welles and Joseph Cotton, as well as the rest of the cast, deliver near perfect pitch performances. And then there's the memorable score, only one instrument, a zither. Shot simply and much on location in still war-damaged Vienna, the striking cinematography strongly complements the performances and lends enormous atmosphere. This film is in my Top 10. It's a classic. Highly recommended.


Coming Soon: "Twenty-One Questions" (2012)

Here is the trailer for a short film I'm in that was shot last October. It's by the folks at Strawhouse Pictures and should be out to festivals in October. It's a science fiction comedy that's generally a conversation between a time traveler and a bureaucrat. I play the bureaucrat.

Should the uploaded video be of a quality not suitable, you can go check it out on Vimeo here.



Two Things: something cool and something dumb

The Cool Thing

In 2006 a cool movie got made. "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon". It was a documentary about an aspiring serial killer, and some time during the movie the documentary turns into a slasher film itself. It was funny, had a wonderful and talented cast, was well written and well directed, and was a lot of fun.

Now the same production team wants to make a sequel, and I think it's a good idea, and I've pledged $50 to their Kickstarter campaign. Their studio is apparently nervous about making more horror, and so the "Behind the Mask" gang want to raise $450,000 to make the picture. (The original was made for $262,000.)

Here's the link their Kickstarter page: 

"Before the Mask: The Return of Leslie Vernon"

The Dumb Thing
For whatever reason, Blogger will not allow me to comment on any of my posts. Nothing seems to fix it so far, not clearing or resetting my browser, not anything. I'm not ignoring anyone whose commenting, not that there are many of you. I simply can't respond in the comments. More on this as/if it develops.

Now go pledge a few dollars to "Before the Mask".
Pretty please.
It'll be cool.


The Thursday List: Gangster Edition (International)

Kung Fu Hustle (2004)
This movie isn't simply a good story well told. This is my favorite martial arts film ever. It's well paced, with plenty of action, lots of laughs, and just the right amount of drama and suspense, and the special effects are all in service of the story, not simply there to look cool. On top of that it looks like the cast and crew really enjoyed making it, which is a plus in my book. It's a genuinely fun, enjoyable film. Highly recommended.

Snatch (2000)
A comedy of errors and omissions between a bunch of villains, ranging from truly bad men and men who desperately want to be truly bad but really aren't. It's a roller coaster, rapidly paced and a bit of a jigsaw. And funny. People get threatened and beat up and killed, but... yeah, it's a gritty crime comedy, with a marvelous cast, including Jason Statham, Benicio del Toro, Dennis Farina, and Stephen Graham. Alan Ford delivers a truly stand-out performance as Brick Top, the main villain and undeniably the film's Most Very Bad Man. This is one of my Top 10 Crime/Caper Films. Highly recommended.

Jackie Brown (1997)
Some may consider it heretical, but I consider this Quentin Tarantino's best film to date, not that his others have been exactly poor by any stretch of the imagination... except for maybe "Death Proof". It's got the trademark Tarantino pacing and dialogue, but the characters are by and large the most relatable and interesting of his works. It helps of course that the cast is stellar, particularly Robert Forrester, Pam Grier, Robert DeNiro, and Samuel L. Jackson, and they're working from a near-perfect script. High marks all around. Highly recommended.


The Thursday List - My Shelf Edition (again)

"The Ninth Gate" (1999)
Johnny Depp plays a rare book hustler/dealer who is hired by a ruthless billionaire bibliophile, played by Frank Langella, to authenticate a copy of a legendary occult book reputed to have been dictated by the Devil himself back in the seventeenth century. Hilarity, of course, ensues. Directed, produced, and co-written by Roman Polanksi, the film is well-written, stylish, suspenseful, and well made, and the cast is excellent. Many frown on the movie since it's not another "Rosemary's Baby", which itself is a film I believe highly, highly overrated. I believe "The Ninth Gate" is, I believe, quite underrated, and it is one of my personal occult favorites.

"Chinatown" (1974)
This is widely considered to be one of the best all around films ever made, for good reason. It's a Robert Towne script directed by Roman Polanski and starring Jack Nicholson, Faye Dunaway, and John Huston. To put it simply, the film is a master class in just about every aspect of filmmaking, a feat not accomplished by many. The story is engaging. Towne's script it tight and well-paced, as is Polanski's direction, and the cast is, as you might guess, superb. "Chinatown" is a must-see.


Coming Soon: a haunted house

from Summit Entertainment

Ethan Hawke plays a novelist looking to write a great novel. He and his family can't afford to keep their old house, and so they move into another, cheaper one... one with a bloody history. Things go downhill. The trailer looks good, and so it's here. It piqued my interest, as it features Ethan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio.


Alien 5 (a.k.a. the first film)

A dying trillionaire sends a space mission to explore the possibility of meeting humanity's parent race on a distant, newly discovered planet. There are tunnels, shadows, slimy things, dupicitousness, and a big giant face. Hilarity, as ever, ensues on LV-223.

"Prometheus" (2012)
directed by Ridley Scott
written by Damon Lindelof and Jon Spaihts
starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, and Guy Pearce

How it is?
I have to come right out with it. The visuals are amazing, but they can't cover up the problems with the script. (My inner scifi fanboy really hated to say that about "Prometheus", but there it is.)

The Players
At the top there are Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, and Idris Elba. Fassbender as the Weyland Corporation's premiere android model, David, steals the show. His is a touching and simultaneously sympathetic and casually menacing performance as the android who seems maybe to want to be human... or at least equal, more than a servant. Theron's portrayal of Vickers, the Corporation's no-nonsense executive representative on board the Prometheus, is spot on and arcs well over the course of the film. Idris Elba as Janek, the captain of the Prometheus, is as close to an everyman as the we get in the film, and his performance as the good captain brings a practical, grounded humanity to the film that is missing for the most part in other main characters.

At the other end of the spectrum there are Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green, but it's not necessarily a matter of lacking performances but rather cardboard characters as written. Rapace's character, Dr. Elizabeth Shaw, was the lynchpin of the whole mission, her theory of an extraterrestially seeded Earth. The theory was more interesting than the character, and the character seemed to be sort of another attempt at bringing scifi and movie fans another Ellen Ripley. Rapace/Shaw simply didn't get enough traction, what with everything else going on in the film. Marshall-Green's character, Shaw's love interest, Charlie Holloway, wasn't substantial enough a character for him to be much more than cardboard. That's not a fault of either and everything to do with the script. And then there's Guy Pearce as Weyland Corporation's aged namesake, Peter Weyland. Pearce manages well with the character through a lot of prosthetic makeup, although Weyland's presence is relatively slight, in both screen time and story contribution.

Behind the Camera
At the top there is Ridley Scott. He is an astonishing film director. With Dariusz Wolski (cinematographer) and Arthur Max (production designer) he made an amazing visual follow-up/prequel to the rest of the Alien franchise. The attention to detail, every little thing practical and digital, was as is his career reputation suggests, mightily impressive. The film moves along at a fair clip the whole way through, with appropriate rising and falling action so the audience gets neither exhausted or lost. Well, mostly neither. The kicker for the film is the writing is where it doesn't quite hold up.

At the other end of things, there are there's the writing. In a nutshell, Prometheus is either a bit overcomplicated or a bit shoddily written. The skeleton of the story is simple enough and intriguing. There were just too many layers added, for whatever reasons, by screenwriters Spaiht and Lindelof, and rather than an interesting ensemble of characters, each with contributions to make, there were a few interesting characters and some other ones thrown in because story formula demanded it. It just never really gels. (Gosh, my inner fanboy is reeling at this.) The writing simply doesn't measure up to Scott's direction and visual scale or what anyone was expecting, really, and that's a real shame.

The Verdict
Prometheus seemed to be more about asking questions than about characters being confronted by those questions and acting accordingly, which is what weakens it. It felt like a conflicted film, a strong visual sense that wanted to show things and get across ideas and a script that didn't know how to stage or explain them effectively so it tended to play with what were sometimes rather obvious tropes. I am notoriously unforgiving of what I believe to be slack or poor or substandard writing, especially from people who ought to know better, and Spaight and Lindelof's script is a decidedly average at best, and the rest of the film can't escape from it.

Due to the strength of the performances by Fassbender, Theron, and Elba and the combined expert visual and technical machinations of Scott and the production crew, the film still comes in looking better than average. It's just that it feels awfully forced in places, trying to cover over the things that really don't really work but were kept in anyway. Alas, the film couldn't live up to the hype.


an original web series premiered today on YouTube

"No Fourth Wall" 
(Episode 1)

"No Fourth Wall" is an original web series about three guys (seen above) who are working on starting what they hope to be a hit web series. It's dryly funny, which is always a plus for me, and well-paced. The episodes are going to be short. Episode 1 comes in at 7:14, and that's including credits on both sides and bloopers after the end credits. Go give it a look-see.


A Lonely Guy, Two Dead Women, and Three Guys and a Video Camera (It's not what you think.)

"The Woman in Black" (2012)
Technically well executed film, competently directed. Good story but average script. The film is quite atmospheric, gloomy, and visually delicious, but its shocks and scares were by and large stock and predictable and so not really shocking or scary. Excellent performances by the cast, Ciaran Hinds in particular, emphasize the gloom and mystery of the story, but oddly, the story itself didn't hang together well, especially with the ending that disappointingly didn't match the rest of the film. The 1983 book and the 1993 BBC radio drama are much more frightening and tightly written. Average.

"Chronicle" (2012)
Finally we have a 'found footage' movie that fires on all cylinders. It concentrates on telling a simple, good story very well. The characters are interesting and have reasonable arcs, and the script is generally quite tight. The cast is excellent, and the special effects are used to help in telling the story and not just there for spectacle. They are spectacular, however. It all comes together to make "Chronicle" much, much better than average. It's more than a science fiction special effects fiesta. It's a very interesting "What if?" story about human nature. Highly recommended.


The Thursday List: My Shelf Edition (Pt 4)

The Blues Brothers (1980)
As far as I know, this is the first movie to be made exclusively as a vehicle for cast members of Saturday Night Live, and it's the best one. In fact, it's one of the best, most fun comedies of the 1980s. It's got music, an off-the-wall but very dry sense of humor, and quite possibly one of the top three car chases in cinema history. It hits all right notes and deserves its status as a film classic.

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Out of all of the films that have been made only about six hundred have been selected to be inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry. This is one of those films. Filmed on location and brilliantly directed and acted, it's engaging on various levels all the way through, and it's production quality is top-notch. It's a must-have for any cinephile's collection.

Casino Royale (1967)
Before Daniel Craig, Pierce Brosnan, Timothy Dalton, Roger Moore, and George Lazenby there was... David Niven. And Peter Sellers... Ursula Andress... Barbara Bouchet, Joanna Pettet, Terence Cooper, and Daliah Lavi -- all as James Bond 007... in the same film. Film historian said it was a "film of momentary vision, collaboration, adaptation, pastiche, and accident. It is the anti-auteur work of all time, a film shaped by the very zeitgeist it took on." In a nutshell: It was a lovably absurd, psychadelic parody of itself. It had multiple directors, several uncredited star cameos, an unusual number of script versions, a legendary feud, and eventually stood upon its release as one of the most expensive films ever made. It's amazing it was ever completed, and it's beautiful to see and lots of fun. Again, a classic.


Not really all that rad.

A group of Americans (and two Aussies) go with a former Russian Special Forces tour guide on an "extreme tour" near probably the most infamous man-made disaster site in history. What could possibly go wrong?

"Chernobyl Diaries" (2012)
directed by Bradley Parker
written by Oren Peli, Carey Van Dyke, Shane Van Dyke
starring Jonathan Sadowski, Jesse McCartney, Olivia Dudley, Devin Kelley, Dimitri Diatchenko, Nathan Phillips, Ingrid Bolso Berdal

How is it?
It never quite figure out what it wanted to be until about half an hour from the end -- when it was too late, and so it decided to be desperately predictable and average.

The Players
The actors and actresses did well with what they had, which were by and large cardboard characters. Up until the script just became overrun with so many cliches there was no room for originality they generally managed to make things interesting. Dimitri Diatchenko as Uri the Extreme Tour Guide gave the best performance by far in the film, and it was genuinely a downer when Uri went the way of all tour guides in horror films. The film lacked a great deal once he was gone, which was too soon.

Behind the Camera
The film has a very good visual sense. Director Bradley Parker knows visuals. This is his directorial debut, after working in visual effects since the very late 1990s. And oddly, it's the atmosphere of the film that lets it down. Parker never really commits to the horror but leaves it just out of camera range or just out of focus in the dark, and so the movie audience never gets the roller coaster effect, only a series of close calls, dark corners, and the characters experiencing mounting horror without the audience being in it with them. The audience gets drowned in atmosphere until about the last half hour when things start moving quickly, just in very formulaic ways, and when the ending comes it's just... well, there, having been expected. It's not all Parker's fault.

It's Oren Peli's. He's the man who brought Paranormal Acitivies 1, 2, 3 and soon 4. His general schtick is the horrors being left to audience imagination, and that can work really well for some things. With this film it comes across rather forced, as a gimmick. The story is interesting at first, but the screenplay doesn't serve it well. By the end it's down to clicking off the ticky boxes for horror movie conventions, and the audience doesn't really care because there's nothing new or original about it. It's just there. It's almost perfectly average.

The Verdict
"It's almost perfectly average." That really covers it. It's worth a see if you can pay $5 like I did to see it matinee and you're into the genre. Otherwise wait for it to be on Netflix streaming in two or three months.


another peek at "The Avengers"

a clip from Marvel's "The Avengers"
-- Loki imprisoned, chats with Nick Fury --

"The Avengers" hits U.S. movie theaters on May 5.


Leaving on a jet plane... for a week

I will be heading out bright and early in the morning to go to the airport.

Happy Easter.

See you soon.


Don't Be Afraid of Watching Something Else

For reasons we never really get to know a little girl we really never get to know or care about gets sent to live with her not terribly supportive, workaholic architect dad and his designer/girlfriend in a big giant spooky house that turns out to have awful little mischievous and bloodthirsty CG creatures in the basement. Hilarity via predictability and narrative paltriness ensues.

"Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" (2011)
directed by Troy Nixey
written by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins
starring Guy Peace, Katie Holmes, and Bailee Madison

How Is It?
To put not too fine a point on it, it's rather flat, all told. It's designed beautifully and looks great, but most of the story and script are rather tired. There are a few good bits here and there, but overall... it's generally a rather ineffective gimmick movie.

The Players
If Guy Pearce had enough screen time in it or if his character was terribly important, which you would think would have been the case, I could tell you how he did. He did alright as an archetype, the Career Success Oriented And Not Terribly Empathetic Father. Katie Holmes manages well as the Awkward Girlfriend/Surrogate Mother Who Doesn't Feel She's Ready To Be A Mother But Finally Finds The Strength When The Kid Is In Danger. To give credit where it's due, both did alright with the material they had to work with. The movie belonged to Bailee Madison, who played the Misunderstood And Terribly Socially Awkward But Allegedly Quite Bright Child, who was let down by two things. One was a woefully ordinary and overly long script for the story. The other was she couldn't carry it and didn't have any help in the effort, primarily from the script and direction.

Behind the Camera
The film looks great. The sets are very nice and lit and shot pretty well. The shots are well framed, and the movie has atmosphere. And the creatures look good. Troy Nixey's first feature length film looks good. It's just not got much in the way of substance, and it feels maybe like it's maybe twenty or thirty minutes too long. There is too much wandering in the dark, too much spotty lighting, too much emphasis on looking mysterious without there really being any mystery whatsoever. It's not so much a haunted house film as it is a mouse hunt, which is a real let down, and much of it has to do with the script.

The script is subpar. There. I said it. There's not enough story for its hour and a half, and the story that we get is, well, more than a bit hackneyed. It pains me to say this about a script by Guillermo del Toro, who is one of my favorite directors and storytellers and a true artist of the macabre, but the script, by and large, is just painfully below average. The characters are cardboard and not original, plain and simple. The scares, or what passes for them, come quite by the numbers and are for the most part visible from miles away. And the whole thing reeks of melodrama and fails to establish even an internal reality beyond "This is supposed to be scary." The script is the foundation, and it doesn't work well.

The Verdict
A very weak script in the hands of a novice director has the odds against it at the outset. "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark" didn't beat the odds. The few good moments it had weren't enough to hold my attention as a viewer. Honestly, if I had not been watching it to review it, I would have switched it off before the thirty minute mark.

Not frightening. Dreadfully predictable. Characterless. Uninspiring. Not recommended.


Big things have small beginnings that make for big films.

"Prometheus" (2012)

It took thirty-three years for it to show up, a prequel to "Alien" or at least something to give a shot at explaining the background. It's Ridley Scott's instead of someone else's, which means the likelihood of real quality is much higher than average. I'm looking forward to seeing this one.


Trailers, anyone?

I find trailers all over the place, and so it's time to start sharing. There are, of course, no guarantees on the full movies, but if the trailers look cool they'll get posted. And it starts with...

 "FDR: American Badass" (2011)

Barry Bostwick, Ray Wise, Bruce McGill, Lin Shaye, and Kevin Sorbo... and werewolves? Okay. I will watch this one for fun based on this cast list alone.


The Thursday List: My Shelf Edition (Pt 3)

"Apollo 13" (1995)

It was a rough year at the Academy Awards that year, and as cool as "Braveheart" was, for my money this was the Best Picture. Superbly directed, visually stunning, with a top-notch script and near flawless cast, "Apollo 13" is a master class on how to put together an historical drama for film. It also put into pop culture the saying I hear several times a year: "Houston, we have a problem." I believe this film was tops in what was truly a good year for movies.

"Army of Darkness" (1992)

While relying more on slapstick comedy than the violence and gore of its two predecessors, "Army of Darkness" is a fun comedy-horror, and Bruce Campbell is in top form. Critics generally panned it when it came out, comparing it to the first two Evil Dead films, but that was a mistake. On its own "Army of Darkness" holds it own and has a distinct style and tone, and it's good stuff.

"Batman" (1989)

With all the hubbub over Christopher Nolan's two Batman film installments and Heath Ledger's Joker, many people look back uncharitably on Tim Burton's film, and that's a shame. It's a good script with a good story. It has very good, stylized art direction and a distinct, dark feel. Its Batman, portrayed by Michael Keaton, and its Joker, portrayed by Jack Nicholson, don't disappoint. It's just cultural tastes have changed. "Batman" is a very good film, and I recommend it.


The Thursday List: My Shelf Edition (Pt 2)

"Aliens" (1986)

This film was an integral part of my development as a kid, a science fiction buff, an actor and writer, and a movie fan. It's a sequel unlike its predecessor in style and can work by itself as a standalone film. Its script is top notch, and it's a technically superbly executed film. All of it has held up well over time, the special effects in particular. It's a smashingly entertaining cinema experience.

"Alien 3" was included on a recent Thursday List and so will be skipped for this segment.

"An Innocent Man" (1989)

A pretty solid drama, this is one I came across quite by accident back in the '90s while channel surfing one night. It's a simple story, effectively told, and featuring a very good cast, with Tom Selleck and F. Murray Abraham at the fore. The script is well written and tight, and it's well directed and gets everything right on cue. It's kind of predictable, but it's genuinely engaging and so is better than most. I like it.

"An American Werewolf in London" (1981)

This was one of the first movies I ever saw on cable television and was the source of some of my fiercest nightmares as a pre-teen. Sometimes deadly serious, sometimes comic, sometimes deadly serious and comic -- it's a highly effective, quickly paced, very well performed, and extremely fun horror film. It was the first VHS tape I ever bought, the third DVD and third Blu-Ray I ever bought. A solid film. One of my favorites.


The Thursday List: My Shelf Edition (Pt 1)

I don't have an enormous library of movies. Well, I don't have nearly as enormous a library of movies as I would like. Let's put it that way. The following is the start of the list that will be on Thursdays for a while. I'm going to detail what I have and why.

"2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968)
Easy. This is one of the best, most influential films ever made. For all intents and purposes technically perfect, it wove special effects seamlessly into a marvelous story, balancing the two perfectly in a way, alas, not seen again until 1982's "Blade Runner"... and then not much after. It's #2 in my Top Ten and was the second Blu-Ray disc I ever bought. I watch it once or twice a year. It's that phenomenal.

"2010: The Year We Make Contact" (1984)
It's an '80s movie, and it looks like one... a lot. And it's dated... a lot. That said, it's solid, well conceived and executed, entertaining, in one of two scenes rather moving, and the cast is exceptional. It was also one of the first movies I ever watched when my parents go HBO. So in addition to being a very good film it's one of this film geek's sentimental favorites.

"Alien" (1979)
Again, easy. This is one of the top ten science fiction films ever made, as well as one of top one hundred films ever produced. I owned it on VHS, and then on DVD. I now have the Blu-Ray, and I'll get it on whatever format comes next. "A simple story, brilliantly told." That's it in a nutshell. Add to that a striking visual design that hasn't aged a bit in over thirty years and one of the greatest shocks in the history of cinema, and that's why it's in my collection. 


The Thursday List: The Renewal

"Alien 3" (1992)
Plagued by pre-production difficulties that would have killed most other franchises, "Alien 3" and its fledgling director David Fincher forged ahead and created a solid, however underrated, third film in the "Alien" saga. It's not super suspense and scares, and it's not gung ho shoot'em up action. "Alien 3" is a slow burn, a bleak, dark tragedy playing out in the coldness of space on a barren prison planet. The script, while not terribly innovative or wowwing, is good, and the acting is uniformly brilliant throughout. "Alien 3" also has its own trademark audiovisual style, as its predecessors did themselves, and it works. Compared to "Alien" and "Aliens" it falls rather short, but taken on its own, as it should be, "Alien 3" deserves a better rap than it gets. Recommended.

"Blood Simple" (1985)
This debut film of directors Joel and Ethan Coen is a masterpiece of neo-noir cinema. Suspicion, adultery, thievery, murder, double-crosses, and characters that are at the same time really stupid and really, really awful people. "Blood Simple" is dark, and it's mean, and it's unforgiving, and it's visceral, and it's truly brilliant to watch it unfold. The cast is truly exceptional, and the late M. Emmet Walsh's private eye Loren Visser is one of the most evil and treacherous villains ever to stain the silver screen, and he's almost kind of likeable, in a twisted kind of way. Treat yourself to this film. It's a classic. Highly recommended.

"The Negotiator" (1998)
The running theme today is "an excellent cast", and that's what this film has. "The Negotiator" is a police procedural plus a whodunnit in the style of "Die Hard" but with less overt humor and more intrigue and suspense. The script is tight. The pace is quick. The cast is in top form, especially Kevin Spacey and the late J.T. Walsh. It's a solid roller coaster ride, evenly spaced action and suspense, up until the end. Recommended.


Happy New Year!

Welcome  to  2012!

We will return to our normally scheduled but often not quite on time programming this week.

And I thank you for your support.