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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Review: I Am Santa Claus

The Joys and Hardships of Becoming Santa

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 4, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Documentary, Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 89 minutes
Director: Tommy Avallone
Cast: Mick Foley, Russell Spice, 
Bob Gerardi, Frank Pascuzzi, 
Jim Stevenson

As one of the Santas in "I Am Santa Claus" explains, to be a good Santa, you have to have "Christmas in your heart." Then the film cleverly cuts to footage of wild-eyed pro wrestler Mick Foley being thrown violently off the top of a cell. Foley's portrayal of unhinged madmen such as Cactus Jack and Mankind made him, in his heyday, the last person you would ever associate with a character as jolly and loving as Santa Claus. But that's the point. The man inside the Santa suit can come from all walks of life. As the movie shows, there are black Santas (I met one when I was 6, and he must have been the real Santa because he knew exactly what I wanted), Jewish Santas, and Muslim Santas.

There's also a gay Santa, which is an issue with some of the other Santas. As far as I'm concerned, Santa Claus is asexual once he puts on the suit. At no point have I ever thought about what Santa does with his candy cane outside of working hours.

Speaking of candy canes, one of the Santas uses a walking cane that looks exactly like a candy cane. It's one of the most creative visual puns I've ever seen.

There are four experienced Santas in "I Am Santa Claus." They are Russell Spice, Bob Gerardi, Frank Pascuzzi, and Jim Stevenson. The fifth, the aforementioned Mick Foley, is a rookie in training. His transition is shown throughout the film.

Becoming Santa is a much more complicated process than you could ever imagine. Santa's hair and beard have to be dyed the right shade of white, which is actually an arduous and painstaking process. But it goes beyond mere looks. A good Santa has to smell a certain way too. That means choosing the right cologne and avoiding foods and substances that would destroy the illusion.

These men don't just dress up as Santa, they are Santa.

In the case of Frank Pascuzzi, that's a literal statement. The Long Island native legally changed his name to Santa Claus. (He even has his own IMDb profile!) According to him, "Santa is better than Frank." Before becoming Santa, he had long black hair and tattoos – and no one wanted to go near him. Dying his hair white changed everything. It almost seems, in his mind, that Frank has become the character who has faded into the background and Santa has overtaken him as the real person.

The obvious parallels between Santa and pro wrestling are not lost on Mick Foley, who even says as much in a conversation with the late "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. Just as wrestlers once upon a time had to become their characters 24-7, the same dedication is required to be Santa Claus.

Still, Foley's rookie year as Santa was probably easier than one of his earliest matches in wrestling, where he was bounced around the ring by a reckless Dynamite Kid.

The contrast between "I Am Santa Claus" and Foley's previous appearance in a documentary, Barry Blaustein's "Beyond the Mat," is startling. One of the final images in "Beyond the Mat" is of Foley's children crying their little eyes out after seeing their dad get hit over the head with a chair by The Rock a staggering eleven times. Near the end of "I Am Santa Claus," the sleepy joy of Foley's youngest son being visited by Santa at home is a much more touching – and far less violent – scene. I have to wonder if this was intentionally positioned as a redemptive moment for Foley – or at least his parenting. ("Beyond the Mat" director Blaustein is thanked in the "I Am Santa Claus" credits.) Whether calculated or not, it works and Foley seems like a good guy.

Almost as good as Santa.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Review: Steve Jobs

Hello Again

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 23, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Biography, Drama
Running Time: 122 minutes
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Aaron Sorkin (screenplay), 
Walter Isaacson (book)
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Kate Winslet, 
Seth Rogen, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg, 
Katherine Waterston, Perla Haney-Jardine, 
Ripley Sobo, Makenzie Moss, Sarah Snook, 
John Ortiz 

"Steve Jobs" is the second movie in two years about the founder of Apple. Add a 600+ page book to the equation (by Walter Isaacson, which this is based on), and it's hard to blame anyone for being sick of Jobs by now. But this is far from a retread of the previous material.

The first film – 2013's "Jobs" – raced through its subject's "insanely great" history. "Steve Jobs" is narrower in focus: it takes place almost entirely during three product launches – the Macintosh in 1984, the NeXT Computer ("the cube") in 1988, and the iMac in 1998 – with a few other short flashbacks as needed.

The big surprise here: While Jobs (Michael Fassbender) may be an asshole, he's portrayed here as a benevolent one capable of recognizing his own flaws and compromising on (some) points. Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), meanwhile, comes across as somewhat of a bitter, petulant, slightly unhinged man-child. It's a dramatic shift from the nice and loveable but kooky guy he's usually portrayed as. Yet, the real Woz has nothing but praise for this movie, which seems strange to me given his less-than-flattering characterization in this version of the story. But, hey, who am I to argue with the creator of the Apple II?

Before each product launch, Jobs interacts with several important figures from his life: former Pepsi CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels, superb as always), infamous for "firing" Jobs from his own company; Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg, "Hugo"), the designer in charge of making the Mac say "hello"; and Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), with whom Steve had a daughter. Chrisann is underwritten though. As justified as her emotions are, the writing or acting (or both) dismisses her as a nagging shrew. But her presence is a simply a means to an end to establish the relationship between Jobs and Lisa (portrayed by three different actresses – Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine – from ages 5 to 19). The struggles between father and daughter – and the irony of a man "abandoned" by his birth parents later doing the same to his own child – end up being one of the major themes of the film.

In the foreground during all of this is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). Winslet dominates every scene she's in as Steve's tough-talking, no-nonsense, take-no-shit assistant. It's one of the film's biggest treats to behold. If Fassbender is in contention for an Oscar nomination, Winslet better be right by his side. The best supporting roles make you want to see a movie about them. Just as Tommy Lee Jones accomplished that as Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln," so does Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in "Steve Jobs."

It is a glaring fact that Michael Fassbinder doesn't much look like the man he's playing. But after five minutes on-screen, that doesn't really matter. Hair, clothing, and a dash of makeup are more than enough to maintain some semblance of an illusion for the audience. All of that, however, would be for naught without the great writing by Aaron Sorkin and the fantastic acting by Fassbender and his co-stars as they bring those words to life.

For a film that essentially consists of nonstop dialogue and people walking into different rooms, it is subtly stylish. The three time periods are each filmed differently: 1984 is grainy with a dark and drab color scheme, 1988 feels more open with a richer palette but retains a traditional film look, and 2008 is shot digitally and looks clear and bright. There are also other visual flourishes, such as a nighttime board meeting with rain pouring behind a glass window – a dazzling backdrop.

One of the best aspects of Sorkin's script: Something from 1984 may affect what happens in 1998. There are instances of that all over "Steve Jobs." One example: Lisa's Sony Walkman (a music tape player, for those of you too young to remember them) portends the coming of the iPod.

Of course, not everything really happened as depicted in "Steve Jobs." For one thing, people generally don't speak like great screenwriters and argue using only catchy soundbites and quips. Also, I don't think anyone is really expected to believe that all of the central figures in Steve Jobs's life would show up and confront him mere minutes before an important press conference – three times! If that actually happened, it would be a sign of collective mental illness. After all, don't these people have anything better to do? Obviously, it's a purposeful plot device designed to tell the story a specific way – and it works on that level. In Sorkin's own words, "this a painting and not a photograph."

It is tempting to analyze and contrast "Steve Jobs" with the earlier "Jobs," but it really is like comparing – forgive me – apples and oranges. Ashton Kutcher did an incredible job in 2013, but Michael Fassbender puts his own unique stamp on this version. Ditto for Josh Gad and Seth Rogen, respectively, as Woz. "Jobs" tells a more complete story, but the writing in "Steve Jobs" is superior. Both films have a reason to exist, and that's something I wasn't expecting.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: Burnt

Send It Back to the Kitchen

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 30, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 101 minutes
Director: John Wells
Writers: Steven Knight (screenplay), 
Michael Kalesniko (story)
Cast: Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, 
Daniel Brühl, Riccardo Scamarcio, 
Omar Sy, Sam Keeley, Matthew Rhys, 
Emma Thompson, Uma Thurman 

All too often, "Burnt" feels like a sequel to a movie that never happened. When the backstory is more interesting than the events we actually see in the film, that's a problem.

Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) is a celebrity among chefs – he's considered the "Rolling Stones" of the culinary world – but he disappeared from the Paris restaurant scene three years earlier for all the usual reasons: bad behavior, drugs and alcohol, being an asshole. One of his drunken/assholish acts was to set rats in a competitor's restaurant and then call the health inspector. His self-imposed penance: peeling oysters in a New Orleans dive while detoxing from meth, booze, and women. His comeback takes him to London, where every single person he ever wronged in Paris now magically resides. Quite the trip! Hopefully they got a group discount.

Tony (Daniel Brühl) owns a restaurant. More accurately, his father owns it. Adam needs a job. They can help each other.

Adam's pitch: if he's hired as the head chef, he'll turn the restaurant around – and Tony can finally make his father proud. Tony agrees, but only if the temperamental chef undergoes weekly drug testing from a doctor (Emma Thompson, making the most of a small role).

Adam knows he'll need cooks. He recruits single mum Helene (Sienna Miller) and former rival Michel (Omar Sy). Along the way, he'll have to contend with a rival restauranteur (Matthew Rhys) and a finicky food critic (Uma Thurman, putting on a delicious English accent in a small cameo).

Adam Jones is a chef in the grand tradition of Gordon Ramsay – he violently clangs pots and smashes plates across the room. It's his passion for perfection, you see. And yet, ironically, he's not above eating at Burger King. He explains why, in one of "Burnt's" more memorable scenes, and outlines his philosophy in the kitchen.

The quest of every great chef is to earn three Michelin stars. How a tire company became the foremost authority on food is beyond me, but its ratings are legitimately the culinary equivalent of winning an Oscar or Pulitzer. Michelin's methodology is always the same – at least according to this movie: an "anonymous" critic will come in, carefully place a fork on the floor, order only half a glass of water, and other such nonsense along those lines. Wow, what normal, unnoticeable behavior – they sure know how to blend in!

Before years of hard living, Adam used to "look like an angel." Was this part originally written for Mickey Rourke? That's the only way that piece of dialogue makes any sense. It isn't nearly as believable when talking about Bradley Cooper. Then again, his character does have a bit of facial hair, which in Hollywood means you're living on the edge!

Despite that, one character still has lingering feelings for him. I won't say who, but "Burnt" might have been more interesting if it had gone in that direction. At least it would have been an unexpected development in a film with very few of them.

Foodies beware: there is nothing appetizing or glamorous on display here. This is a dark and gritty look at life inside a kitchen. What's on the plate definitely takes a backseat. There is nothing wrong with that, necessarily, but even the omelets look boring. No peppers? No onions? No seasoning? I guess we're supposed to believe the chef has such magical hands that he can make even plain, dull eggs taste like a slice of nirvana. Okay, maybe. (Silver Screen Sister did notice that the yolks were more orange in color. Is that how eggs look in England or did someone in the editing room have a little too much fun with the color timing?)

I suppose that's appropriate, because the movie has the consistency of runny eggs. The performances are rock solid and the characters are interesting, which makes it all the more a pity that the story is far richer off-screen than on. While there are certainly positive aspects to appreciate here, keep in mind that cold pizza still tastes good too.

Perhaps "Burnt's" biggest sin: I wasn't even hungry as I walked out of the theater.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: The Babadook

Chris Sabga and Matt Wintz Review This Sinister Australian Story

By Chris Sabga and Matt Wintz

To celebrate Silver Screen Halloween, Chris Sabga and Matt Wintz have teamed up to review "The Babadook." One of us liked it more. Who it was might surprise you.

Remember Its Name – Babadook, Baba dook, BAAABA DOOOOK!

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 28, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: Not Rated
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 93 minutes
Director: Jennifer Kent
Writer: Jennifer Kent
Cast: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, 
Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall, 
Barbara West 

A movie about an evil children's book could've gone so wrong in so many ways, but the Australian import "The Babadook" is genuinely creepy and unsettling in a way that most horror isn't anymore. Much of that should be credited to the film's almost singular focus on the characters themselves and their perpetually stunned reactions: Amelia (Essie Davis) is the tired mum at the heart of this spooky story, and Samuel (Noah Wiseman) is her six-year-old son, who looks lost and terrified throughout.

The little boy throws tantrums almost nonstop in the first half, but he thankfully quieted down just as I was about to reach my breaking point with his behavior. (Matt Wintz had far less patience, as you'll read below.) As irritating as it was to watch at times, it perfectly sets up the frightening frustration that follows.

The scares from the Babadook itself are mostly delivered in the form of quick shadows, sudden movements, and – most effectively – through rapid-fire clips of scary, silent, sometimes black and white TV programs that mirror the characters' mindset. A stark sense of unease and dread permeates the entire film. There is almost no relief.

Essie Davis is a striking beauty in that classical way you rarely see in today's movies. It's easy to picture her in the 1940s or '50s attending a gala ball adorned in a sparkling evening gown. Her uncomplicated good looks – she comes across as the mum next door – stand in shocking contrast to what happens in "The Babadook."

It's an incredible performance.

More than once, I wondered why Davis was shut out of consideration for an Oscar nomination. The answer, most likely, is because this is a horror movie – and in the immortal words of Rodney Dangerfield, those "don't get no respect."

"The Babadook" should be respected – and feared. It's one of the most disturbing cinematic experiences I've endured in years.

Pop-Up Book Children's Chiller

By Matt Wintz

The newest venture into the dark of the Mortuary was brought on by a request, and both Chris and I decided to tackle "The Babadook." Brought to our attention due to my love for horror, this film had been sitting in my Netflix queue for the better part of a month, I just hadn't gotten a chance to sit down and watch it. The film had been getting good reviews from horror magazines and websites, and the limited imagery of the creature in question had piqued my interest, so it didn't take much for me to hit "play" on Netflix when I had a moment where the kids weren't around.

I'm going to keep it light on plot details and spoilers, but the movie deals with a widowed mother named Amelia and her son Sam who have been dealing with the death of Amelia's wife for six years now that occurred as he drove them to the hospital to give birth to Sam. Sam asks his mother to read him a story entitled "Mr. Babadook," a book she had no knowledge of him having, and the scary pop-up book ends up putting the child into hysterics. As time goes on, the kid continues mentioning that he sees The Babadook, and while at first the mom brushes it off, soon there's a little bit more to things that she can just brush off.

The movie drips with atmosphere and there is always a sense of dread and underlying horror as things develop. There isn't a reliance on jumpscares, instead very quick glimpses of the title creature. It develops more of the horror felt by mother and son in losing and dealing with the father, and there is a sense that "The Babadook" almost feels like a horror personification of grief than some demonic entity just out for kicks. It was nice, after having sat through another found footage film (a review that will come later) to have a movie that didn't feel the need for in-your-face horror. If there is one thing I will complain about from a vast number of modern horror films it is the need for the full camera jumpscare, which does nothing but elicit a momentary shock and not an overall sense of horror.

While I can appreciate the atmosphere, there are a few pieces to this Australian/Canadian horror film I wasn't too fond of. One of which was the son. Not that the acting was bad, but the kid was a straight up terror. I say this as a dad, but some of what this kid did just grated on my nerves. The biggest thing was how he seemed to have a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn about half-way through the movie. When the mother didn't believe in The Babadook, the kid was screaming and going through the motions seen in every other "I see something but mom and dad don't believe me" story in the history of horror cinema however once mom then began to seemingly take notice of The Babadook, he seemed to calm down and try to become this "I'll stop it at all costs" kid. While I can appreciate character change, this seemed so quick that it seemed implausible. The kid didn't seem to show much fear altogether that it seemed to dumb down the terror and threat The Babadook was. There were also moments that seemed slow. Now, I understand that movies do need to create their sense of atmosphere and dread, but again, this should not be a sacrifice of pacing either. While not all throughout, there did seem to be some parts of the movie that just seemed to drag. This criticism should not however negate the overall fact the film's atmosphere is fantastic.

The movie is definitely worth the time to check out, but people watching it need to keep in mind this isn't just a jumpscare movie or a movie content at throwing the monster at you any chance they can. The movie uses Babadook sparingly but effectively, and he does have a presence that when I would see him I would get a little unnerved. He is a fantastic looking creature, even if it's in a movie that doesn't necessarily explain everything about him or his intentions. And when done right, where it is here, that helps bad to both the uneasiness and terror being brought on the screen.

"The Babadook" is on home video release and streaming on Netflix, and catch Chris' review of the movie as well (above). A special thanks to Silver Screen Surprises reader Bill Zero for mentioning the movie, and I'm more than willing to take requests for future reviews. Until then, the Mortuary is closed, but always looking for another tenant.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Review: Trick 'r Treat

A Halloween Cult Classic You Don't Want to Miss!

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 6, 2009 (DVD) – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Running Time: 82 minutes
Director: Michael Dougherty
Writer: Michael Dougherty
Cast: Dylan Baker, Anna Paquin, 
Brian Cox, Quinn Lord, Tahmoh Penikett, 
Leslie Bibb, Brett Kelly, Rochelle Aytes, 
Lauren Lee Smith, Moneca Delain, 
Isabelle Deluce, Jean-Luc Bilodeau, 
Alberto Ghisi, Samm Todd, 
Connor Christopher Levins

Such is the sterling reputation "Trick 'r Treat" has amassed over the years that I was flabbergasted to find out it never received a theatrical release. Instead, it was dumped directly to DVD in 2009 – two years after filming was completed. The cover proudly boasts the following blurb: "The best Halloween film of the last 30 years." That may not be far off from the truth. Yes, "Trick 'r Treat" is that good.

It tells several separate stories that connect in small, big, and surprising ways:

  • A bickering couple (Leslie Bibb and "Dollhouse's" Tahmoh Penikett) argue over Halloween decorations.
  • A skewed school principal (Dylan Baker, who has perfected these types of unsettling roles) catches a trick-or-treater stealing too much candy (Brett Kelly, the big kid from "Bad Santa").
  • A 22-year-old virgin (Anna Paquin) is pressured by her friends that tonight should be the night she finally experiences her "first time."
  • A group of brats lure a "savant" girl out of the house and tell her a scary story about a group of captive kids drowning in a school bus. This is a story within a story.
  • A drunken recluse (Brian Cox) opens the door to the wrong trick-or-treater.

All of those sound like fairly conventional horror tropes on the surface, but "Trick 'r Treat" never fails to surprise or delight with its tiny twists and turns. The brisk pace – only 82 minutes – means there are no wasted moments in this movie and never any time to get bored.

There is a "villain" of sorts – Sam, who looks like a homemade Halloween costume – but "Trick 'r Treat" smartly focuses instead on its characters, stories, and stellar cast of actors.

I usually detest films that are split into different sections. I can't stand even some of the "best" examples of this sub-genre – sorry, "Short Cuts" and "Love, Actually" – because most of them feature one or two good sets of characters and stories along with a bunch of others that don't hold my interest or irritate me in some way. But "Trick 'r Treat" is one of the rare exceptions because it's so compelling, entertaining, and just plain done well – everything is great here.

There is so much more I could say about "Trick 'r Treat" but that would only spoil the fun. It's a special movie that you really should experience for yourself.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Review: The Intern

You're Never Too Old to Live Life, Make a Difference, and Contribute Something of Value to the People You Love

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 25, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 121 minutes
Director: Nancy Meyers
Writer: Nancy Meyers
Cast: Robert De Niro, Anne Hathaway, 
Rene Russo, Anders Holm, JoJo Kushner, 
Andrew Rannells, Adam DeVine, 
Zack Pearlman, Jason Orley, 
Christina Scherer  

Every once in a while, it can be particularly satisfying to watch something that's nice for nice's sake. "The Intern" is a nice movie. That it stars Robert De Niro, who has made a career out of playing heavies and menacing characters, makes it all the nicer.

Ben (De Niro) is 70 years old and going back to work It's part of a senior internship program for an online fashion e-tailer, run by a successful young entrepreneur, Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway). Except, Ostin barely recollects the conversation she had with one of her assistants, Cameron (Andrew Rannells), who pitched the idea to her in the middle of her chaotic busy schedule. It is suggested to Ostin that she work with one of the interns – to set a good example – but she balks and panics because she's not comfortable around older people. That's because of her mother (voiced by Mary Kay Place in phone conversations), whose response to "I love you" is usually something along the lines of "yeah" or "okay." You mean, that's not the proper way to address affection? I'll have to make a note of that.

The setup for all of this is great fun: watching another senior citizen teach Ben about .avi and .mov files, uploads, and other technological jargon that must seem like a foreign language to the uninitiated; De Niro's character interacting with the other young interns; and an interview asking the 70-year-old where he sees himself in ten years. (Look for a cameo by Nat Wolff in one of these scenes.)

Of course, Jules doesn't have much for Ben to do at first. Of course, she's frigid and hard to reach in the beginning. Of course, everyone else loves him. And of course, Ben and Jules eventually are forced to get to know each other better. That the movie relies on these obvious tropes doesn't make the story or characters any less endearing. Predictability isn't always a bad thing. In this case, it gives the viewer something to look forward to and root for.

There are various subplots: Jules's challenging marriage to a stay-at-home dad (Anders Holm), who handles all of the traditional "mommy" activities with their daughter (JoJo Kushner); pressure to bring in a more experienced CEO to run the company instead of her, similar to what happened with Steve Jobs and Apple early in its history; and a relationship between Ben and the company masseuse (Rene Russo). But the main focus here is – as it should be – on the hilarious and delightful interactions between the young boss and her much older intern.

At one point, Ben wonders if he's still hip enough to live in Brooklyn. In its own quiet way, the film is a love letter to the city – as it was then and as it is now. Along similar lines, De Niro's character – with his pressed suits, pocket handkerchief, and sensible outlook on life – represents a sort of nostalgia for when "men used to be men." That concept is verbalized later in the movie during a passionate speech by Jules.

There is one particularly silly segment – involving Ben and his much younger co-workers (Adam DeVine, Zack Pearlman, and Jason Orley), a mistakenly-sent e-mail, and "Affleck's brother" – that's not even remotely realistic or believable. But what the hell, it works anyway. It's funny – and (somewhat) true! Most of the humor, though, is much more subtle and sophisticated.

"The Intern" has many great lines and great laughs. It also has a big heart and wonderful performances. This is one of De Niro's best roles in years, and Hathaway continues to prove herself as a major talent. Writer-director Nancy Meyers penned a superb script.

I laughed throughout.

I felt good afterward.

What more can I ask for? 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Matt's Movie Mortuary: A Welcome Nightmare – A Small Salute to Wes Craven

A Short Look Back at a Legend

By Matt Wintz

When I was asked to write about the recent passing of Wes Craven, I knew there were several things I could say. I could talk about his lasting impact and how he turned the horror genre on its ear twice with his movies "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream." I could talk about his controversial movie "The Last House on the Left," or the fact young actors such as Johnny Depp and Patricia Arquette had found breaks in some of his movies. The thing is, when it comes to the horror genre, Wes Craven should also be remembered for how he made horror cool to like. A genre that critics and moral crusaders hated, Wes Craven created movies whose murderous main characters crossed over into the mainstream and were loved.

Freddy Krueger transcended the small piece of the horror cinema corner he slashed for himself. Brought to life through the writing of Craven and acting of Robert Englund, Freddy found himself on MTV, having his own show entitled "Freddy's Nightmares," and became a pop icon. Without the genius of Wes Craven, he could have just been a "one-and-done" character, but Craven crafted him to be able to be something more. And Wes Craven would do that again with "Scream" in the 1990s, resurrecting the horror genre from horrible movies and into blockbusters again.

Personally, the movies of Craven I enjoy the most are sometimes overlooked for "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream." I have always loved the original "The Hills Have Eyes." The bleak reflection of two families pitted against each other: one of contemporary America and the other a cannibalistic clan forgotten from the nuclear age, showed a young director with an idea and a passion who set out into the desert to make a movie. That feeling resonated with me when I was making movies of my own. Craven was part of a horror generation of directors like Romero, Carpenter, and Hooper who didn't get dissuaded from not having a large studio behind them. Without the benefits of the technology filmmakers have now, they just ducked their shoulder and worked hard to make a movie. After hitting it big, Craven attempted to make another Freddy Krueger-esque killer in the film "Shocker." While the film never caught on like Craven hoped, it still remains a film when viewed with an open mind can be one with great potential and feeling of fun.

I never had the honor of meeting Mr. Craven, but I had the opportunity to meet people who worked on films with him and they always spoke highly of him. He was an amazing artist, a brilliant writer and director, and always came across as hopeful for the next generation of genre filmmakers. In a section of film where people who cut their teeth quickly try and distance themselves, Wes Craven stood like a sentry at the gate of horror, proud of the work he'd done and aware of the possibility the genre had. He was one of the champions the genre and he will be sorely missed.

And we'll always have Elm Street.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Last Dragon

Inspired by Bruce Lee and Infused with Motown, the Glow is Still Strong Three Decades Later

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 22, 1985 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 109 minutes
Director: Michael Schultz
Writer: Louis Venosta
Cast: Taimak, Vanity, 
Christopher Murney, 
Julius J. Carry III, 
Faith Prince, Leo O'Brien, 
Mike Starr

With the timing and impact of a well-placed kung fu kick to the head, Berry Gordy's "The Last Dragon" flips all stereotypes, expectations, and preconceived notions upside down. A black teenager is a martial arts master, his parents run an Italian pizzeria, and Chinese kids are hip hop experts.

A project this grand, bold, and quite frankly weird could only have been made in the 1980s.

Following in the footsteps of Bruce Lee, Leroy (Taimak) embarks on a quest to become a kung fu master himself and find his "golden glow." Standing in his way is Sho Nuff (Julius J. Carry III), a Harlem street fighter with fancy footwork of his own. Unlike the honorable but naive Leroy, Sho has no problem breaking both laws and bones if it suits his purposes.

It's the classic tale of an underdog overcoming adversity vs. a bully. That could be why, thirty years later, "The Last Dragon" still lives on. Despite being an obvious product of the '80s, the movie's main message – to always be yourself – will resonate with any generation.

There's also a wacky subplot involving a singer, Laura Charles (the always gorgeous Vanity), who hosts her own show. A corrupt executive, Eddie Arkadian (Christopher Murney), wants his girlfriend's music video to appear on Laura's program – and he'll do anything to make that happen for his "beloved" Angela (Faith Prince). It isn't long, of course, before a chance meeting occurs and Leroy is forced to use his feet and fists to protect Laura from Arkadian's gang of goons.

Taimak projects the perfect combination of innocence and fighting spirit as Leroy. Notice the name Leroy: it has to be a sly reference to the character's hero, Bruce Lee. (There is a treasure trove of Bruce Lee footage featured in the film.) Julius Carry is equally hilarious and menacing as the villainous Sho Nuff. But one of the best – and most underrated – performances comes from Leo O'Brien, who plays Leroy's streetwise younger brother. He grounds the film in a reality it wouldn't otherwise have.

One of the fun bonuses of an older movie like this is seeing future stars pop up in smaller roles: I spotted William H. Macy, an almost unrecognizable Chazz Palminteri ("A Bronx Tale"), a very young Keshia Knight Pulliam (Rudy, "The Cosby Show"), and Mike Starr (Frenchy, "Goodfellas").

I was smiling from ear to ear during "The Last Dragon" – it seems impossible not to. This is the kind of movie you can watch and your worries will melt away – for a couple of hours, at least. A unique style, great fight scenes, catchy dialogue, cool New York backdrops, classic '80s special effects, and memorable Motown music all make this an incredibly fun experience.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: Mr. Holmes

Ian McKellen Struggles with "A Slight Trick of the Mind" as an Aging Sherlock Holmes

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: July 17, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Running Time: 104 minutes
Director: Bill Condon
Writers: Jeffrey Hatcher (screenplay), 
Mitch Cullin (novel)
Cast: Ian McKellen, Laura Linney, 
Milo Parker, Hiroyuki Sanada, 
Hattie Morahan, Patrick Kennedy, 
Roger Allam

There is a mystery in "Mr. Holmes," but that's only part of the story. This incarnation of the iconic detective (played by the superb Ian McKellen) is an old man now. He has given up sleuthing and lives only with his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney, with an English accent), and her young son, Roger (Milo Parker).

Why did Sherlock Holmes retire, what really happened during his final case, and whatever became of his assistant Dr. Watson and brother Mycroft?

This film – based on the novel "A Slight Trick of the Mind" by Mitch Cullen – is divided into three equally important sections and switches between them:

Present day: Holmes is old, frail, and losing his memory. He tends to his bees outside, with the help of his willing little assistant, Roger.

Trip to Japan: A fan of the Sherlock Holmes books, Tamiki Umezaki (Hiroyuki Sanada), wants to meet the man himself and invites him to Japan for a visit. While there, Holmes looks for "prickly ash" – a plant that is said to restore the memory.

His final case: A younger – but still aging – Holmes is hired to investigate a case involving a husband and wife, Thomas (Patrick Kennedy) and Ann (Hattie Morahan).

Because Holmes is ill, elderly, and his memory is diminishing, he can't remember all the details of the case or exactly what led to his retirement.

"Mr. Holmes" has fun with the legend of Sherlock Holmes. It plays around with the concepts of truth, fiction, and the importance of both. According to Holmes, the books based on his cases are somewhat embellished – how, exactly, I'll leave you to discover. On that note, there's a terrific scene with Holmes watching one of the movies depicting his younger self – "Sherlock Holmes and the Lady in Grey" – but don't go looking for it, because it's not real. There's also a great cameo for eagle-eyed fans of a young Sherlock Holmes – which I wouldn't dream of spoiling. To be honest, I wasn't even aware of it until after the fact.

At the heart and soul of the movie is the tender mentor-student relationship between Holmes and the boy. As Roger, newcomer Milo Parker delivers an outstanding performance that is every bit the equal of Ian McKellen's. That's no easy feat, because McKellen himself is fantastic as he switches between the great man with a gleam in his eye to the aging, fading legend who can barely get out of his own bed. He makes his incredible acting appear effortless – but it isn't, of course. The makeup department should also be commended – for somehow masterfully transforming McKellen into an aging version of Basil Rathbone, Nicholas Rowe, or whichever Holmes you consider your favorite.

Once upon a time, Sherlock Holmes was the world's greatest detective. But even the best of us get old. Soon, all that remain are memories. When those begin to go too, what else is left? "Mr. Holmes" delicately but firmly addresses the aging process.

There is a development in the third act – which may or may not involve Holmes at all – that had everyone in the theater on pins and needles. I will say no more.

If you're expecting simply another cracklin' crime caper, stick to the books by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or seek out the older movies with Rathbone or the multitude of others who have donned the cap and coat over the years. "Mr. Holmes" is so much more than that – and so much better for it. It's a fresh, fun, thought-provoking take on an old classic.  

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Five Reasons to Watch Grace and Frankie

One of the Year's Best Shows is on Netflix – and You Might Have Missed It!

By Chris Sabga

Original programming is one of the most important staples of any channel or service – and Netflix has become a heavyweight contender in that arena over the past few years. With shows such as "Daredevil," "Bloodline," and "Orange is the New Black" grabbing all the headlines, you might have missed out on a little hidden gem that was also recently released on Netflix: "Grace and Frankie." It's about two women who are forced to make a sudden and unexpected change in their lives after receiving shocking news from their husbands.

Here are five reasons you should be watching it, and one (minor) disappointment:

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin: 35 years after the groundbreaking "9 to 5," Fonda and Tomlin have finally reunited – and it was absolutely worth the wait. Their chemistry is every bit as great today as it was back in 1980 – maybe even better!

Martin Sheen and Sam Waterson: Before "Grace and Frankie," I wouldn't have ever imagined these two working together – especially in this context. Age suits Martin Sheen well – he has turned into an adorable puppy dog grandpa type. And Sam Waterson is pitch perfect as an old, gay, Jewish hippie – it's the role he was born to play.

Great guest stars: Including Christine Lahti ("Jack and Bobby"), Corbin Bernsen ("Major League"), Brian Benben ("Dream On"), Craig T. Nelson ("Coach"), Michael Gross ("Family Ties"), Ernie Hudson ("Ghostbusters"), and many more. This show clearly attracted the cream of the crop.

Characters named Coyote and Nwabudike: You gotta love that! In fact, all of the supporting cast members – Ethan Embry, Baron Vaughn, Brooklyn Decker, and June Diane Raphael – accomplish the rarer-than-you-think feat of being ideal secondary characters. They enrich the main storyline without being overbearing or ever taking anything away from Fonda, Tomlin, Sheen, and Waterson.

The perfect mixture of comedy and drama: Some episodes are hysterically funny. Others are more serious and somber. But almost all of them are both – bittersweet in some way.

My only disappointment (if you can call it that): No cameos from the other two stars of "9 to 5," Dolly Parton and Dabney Coleman. Then again, that's probably as illogical as expecting S. Epatha Merkerson from "Law & Order" or Rob Lowe from "The West Wing" to show up. (Of course, I wouldn't have minded that either!) Maybe in the second season... They did manage to throw in one sly reference to Parton though: a mention of "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas," which, of course, she starred in.

Why you should watch it: With wonderful actors, great writing, and a fantastic premise, every episode feels like a special treat. The situations that unfold on "Grace and Frankie" are happy, sad, comical, serious, scary, and downright real and messy – just like life. 

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Review: Sophomore

A Sophomoric Teen Comedy with Heart

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 7, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: NR
Genre: Comedy
Running Time: 98 minutes
Director: T. Lee Beideck
Writer: T. Lee Beideck
Cast: Robert Keiper, Amanda Plummer, 
Patrick Warburton, Kyle Wigent, Jared Bearce, 
Amaury Batista, Cory Mellor, Laura Carboni, 
Jamie Cobb, Ronnie Lewis, David Spiecher, 
Kristin Vahl, Cameron Bloomer, 
Chris "Smitty" Smith, Jeffrey Ferguson, 
Christian Bocka, Erin Foley, Brian Osborne, 
Matt Roe, Tree Clemonds

"Sophomore" is a strange little movie that ends up being quietly memorable and oddly endearing. It's a coming-of-age story with teenage gross-out hijinks. There's vomit, feces, and female breasts. But there's also a lot of heart.

The film is split into several sections: First Day of School, Freshman Friday, Drink King, and others – culminating, naturally, with the Last Day of School. Each little vignette focuses on different students, faculty, and staff.

There are a few name stars, but the cast is comprised mainly of unknowns and newcomers. They can't all be great actors, but none of them are bad either – and there are several surprising standout performances.

Robert Keiper is downright fantastic as a cool history teacher everyone calls Cap. Classroom scenes rarely work in movies, but Cap is the kind of educator most kids dream of having. The sophomores in his classroom certainly admire him. Keiper's IMDB profile is shockingly slim for such a great actor, but he apparently has plenty of experience doing theater, voiceover work, and audiobooks.

Amanda Plummer's angry, lonely math teacher, Miss Hutz, is the opposite of cool or well-liked. After she goes on a verbally abusive tirade and kicks a slacker named Lionel (Jared Bearce) out of class, he plots his revenge – by planning to sneak into her too-big house and use her toilet. Yes, sophomoric. Seeing his "deposit" there, he feels, will unnerve her. Much like her Oscar-winning father Christopher Plummer, Amanda Plummer knows how to craft a complex character with a wide range of emotions and nuances. Her heartfelt scene with Robert Keiper is one of the best in the film.

Dave Spiecher – who plays Blank, a 20-year-old high school senior – steals almost every scene he's in. Like most of the cast, he's been in hardly anything else (and, sadly, nothing since "Sophomore"). One of his funniest moments takes place on the first day of school in a freshman English class. While taking attendance, the teacher calls out the name "Thomas Chatham." Two students raise their hands – Blank and the real Thomas Chatham (Matt Roe, who also hasn't been in much, unfortunately). Now the poor kid is put in the awkward, uncomfortable position – on his first day of high school, no less, which is nerve-wracking enough on its own – of having to convince everyone that he actually is Thomas Chatham. The horrified expression on his face is priceless as he insists that "I'm Thomas Chatham!" in a frustrated, pleading voice. It's a small role, but the young actor makes the most of it. The facial reactions from the teacher, Miss Sawyer (Tree Clemonds), are also perfect.

Freshman Friday is a longstanding tradition at Helen Keller High where its newest students are egged, wedgied, and otherwise hazed. The freshmen in the movie look like little kids while the sophomores look far older than their 15 years – but maybe that's the point.

Another comical scenario involves Pam (Laura Carboni), Eddie (Amaury Batista), her cute green car, and her even cuter dog. The girl who plays Pam looks the right age or slightly younger, and is one of the better actors in the ensemble. However, the performer portraying Eddie – according to IMDB – is ancient for a high school sophomore. (Amaury Batista was born in 1972!) Likely, that's part of the joke too, because he gets a fake ID and no one bothers to card him.

A secret drinking contest is held after-hours at the school among the faculty and staff – including the janitor (Patrick Warburton) and coach (Brian Osborne) – with the winner being crowned the "Drink King."

Along with the sophomoric shenanigans, there's a side story involving a group of 7th graders – Bob, Elroy, Jeff, and Lenny (Cameron Bloomer, Jeffrey Ferguson, Christian Bocka, and Chris "Smitty" Smith). They're now discovering the opposite sex, and one of them has a crush on a pretty high school girl. Her name – appropriately enough – is Honey Brubaker (Kristin Vahl). She's Lenny's older sister, so the boys plan a sleepover at his house to get closer to her. This leads to a sweet scene between Bob and Honey. The performances from the four middle-schoolers are generally more natural and convincing than many of the older "sophomores" in the cast – probably because they haven't reached that age of self-consciousness yet.

There are other characters as well – maybe too many to keep track of – but almost all of them contribute to the narrative in some meaningful way. "Sophomore" is full of great moments – both funny and poignant – and much credit for those has to go to the writer (and director), T. Lee Beideck.

One of my favorite small touches in the film is a billboard outside the school with quotes on it: "The best way to destroy an enemy is to make him a friend." – Abraham Lincoln

I'm curious about the long road this movie went through to finally be seen. I don't have any concrete details, but behind-the-scenes shots and publicity photos were posted on Facebook all the way back in February 2009. IMDB indicates that it didn't come out for another three years after that – January 13, 2012, to be exact – but no other details are offered. (Perhaps it was shown at a film festival?) Meanwhile, the film's official Facebook page lists October 7, 2014 as the release date (I'm assuming that was its video-on-demand debut). I can't speak of any potential financial or distribution issues, because I simply don't know. I can only speculate that it was possibly a bit too weird and off-kilter to sell easily. Whatever the reason is, I'm glad it's available to a wider audience now.

Much like the teenagers in it, "Sophomore" has its fair share of zits – and shits and tits – but even with all of the imperfections inherent in a small movie like this, everyone involved was clearly passionate about it and believed in what they were doing. Its honesty and earnestness won me over.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Matt's Movie Mortuary: My Favorite Friday

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter – Only If You Stop Counting

By Matt Wintz

Release Date: April 13, 1984 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror
Running Time: 91 Minutes (Theatrical), 
97 Minutes (Uncut)
Director: Joe Zito
Writers: Barney Cohen and Bruce Sakow
Cast: Corey Feldman, Kimberly 
Beck, Erich Anderson, Judie Aronson, 
Crispin Glover, Peter Barton, 
Lawrence Monoson, Camilla More, 
Carey More, Ted White

A bit of a bonus review for the Mortuary since it's been a while, as I wanted to take my first stab into the "Friday the 13th" series. Instead of starting at the beginning though, I decided to look at my favorite entry and also the movie that I think pulls off a perfect slasher film: the 1984 fourth chapter dubbed "The Final Chapter" although that would be untrue. However, that wasn't how it was originally planned.

The movie is pretty standard for the slasher genre at the time, thanks to the slasher boom in cinema the first "Friday the 13th" started in 1980. A group of teenagers/twenty-somethings are vacationing by a lake just days after Jason Voorhees had been taken down (as seen in flashback scenes from "Friday the 13th Part 3"). The movie does a great job of giving anyone new to the series some backstory, using "Friday the 13th Part 2's" campfire story from Paul, mixed in with scenes from the first three installments, to set up the Jason Voorhees mythos. We then get a shot of Jason still motionless in the barn, axe imbedded in his mask and head, and taken to the morgue. While Jason revives and murders a nurse and morgue attendant, we get introduced to the main characters Tommy and Trish Jarvis, and the house full of expendables. Notable entrants in this movie are Corey Feldman as Tommy and Crispin Glover as Jimmy. Just a year later, both these two would see great career moments with The Goonies and Back to the Future respectfully.

We are given insight that young Tommy is a monster mask/special effects kid and he goes through the swing of being a kid with young women next door, which makes for some interesting moments in the film. Trish is the protective older sister, trying to keep Tommy from both breasts and a serial killer throughout the movie, all-the-while with a feeling of young adult angst that she doesn't partake too much in the partying next door. As stated above, the house next door and the young people inside aren't of serious consequence, they are fodder for Jason. The character of Rob, a big brother from one of Jason's victims in "Friday the 13th Part 2," is portrayed as a possible male hero, but even he falls to Jason. This leads to the fateful showdown between Jason and Trish and Tommy, one in which Tom Savini's make-up effects are on full display to end Jason once and for all.

Or at least, that's how the movie was originally intended. Like I said, from a story aspect this movie doesn't do anything slasher films haven't done before, but it's in the spirit that they are done that make it excel past a majority of the movies done before it and during its time. Slasher movies are, to their detriment at times, formulaic. This movie is not a break from that, but its embrace of the formula is what makes it work. Jason isn't relegated to being a shadow a lot, you see him do the killing. The special effects, by wizard Tom Savini, marks Savini's return to the series since the first installment, and he shows off some of his great work here. It has even been mentioned that the reason he came back was to make sure Jason stayed dead. Joe Zito directs with a steady hand, showing that this wasn't going to be just a slapped together effort. The movie, from a slasher and horror film fan's point of view can be quite close to perfect: iconic villain, fun relatable hero, excellent special effects and kills, nudity and sex, drugs, weird 1980s dancing, and a good amount of jumps for a first time viewers.

The movie was intended to be the final chapter in Jason Voorhees' legacy, but that changed when the movie became such a hit. Made for only $1.8 million, the movie grossed $32.6 million and cemented the idea that movie-goers weren't intent on saying goodbye to Jason quite yet. This led to the resurgence of the series and the fifth film (which I know I'll review later), but this is the final chapter of "real Jason." Part five has a twist ending and part six begins the "zombie Jason" films, so here in part four we are given our last look at a realistic Jason. While some might think to themselves "How can he be real if he was chopped in the head with an axe in part 3?", and that question is not without merit, it can be explained as just being a serious wound not a kill-shot. The movie also creates Jason's most notable nemesis Tommy Jarvis, who appears in parts four through six, although Feldman wouldn't return to play him full-time.

Personally, this movie is not only my favorite of the series, but my favorite slasher movie ever. I watch this film on any "Friday the 13th" I can, and I remember fondly when I saw it for the first time. A good friend of mine and I would rent VHS horror movies from Hollywood Video when we were in high school or right out of it, spending our $2 a tape on four or five movies. We'd then go to one of our houses, grabbing food on the way, and settle in for an all-day horror fest. There were days when we'd get there in the morning when they opened and nine hours later bring back the movies, kindly rewound, and pick up more. "Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter" was the fourth of the series I had ever seen (in order – Part 3, Part 9, Part 1, than Part 4) but as soon as I saw it I was hooked. Jason Voorhees became my favorite horror movie character, I learned what the term "Dead F––" meant, and Corey Feldman became much more than just a Goonie to me.

So in honor of this amazing film, I don my hockey mask and remind you that the Mortuary is now closed.