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Monday, December 1, 2014

Review: Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever

The Citizen Kane of Christmas Cat Meme Movies?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: November 29, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: G
Genre: Comedy, Adventure
Running Time: 90 minutes
Director: Tim Hill
Writers: Tim Hill, Jeff Morris
Cast: Grumpy Cat, Aubrey Plaza, 
Megan Charpentier, Daniel Roebuck, 
Isaac Haig, Evan Todd

I love Grumpy Cat. I can't help it. The famous feline's sour expression makes me laugh.

Grumpy Cat's real name is Tardar Sauce (their spelling, not mine), and Grumpy's permanent grump is actually an effect of feline dwarfism.

However, in the Lifetime movie "Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever," she's referred to as just "Grumpy Cat" or "Grumpy." Yes, Grumpy is a she, not a he, as most people assume. It's one of the many things the movie pokes fun at. The reason she's so grumpy in the movie version of "Grumpy Cat" is because she's stuck at a pet store and no one wants to adopt her. Poor Grumpy.

Grumpy Cat is voiced by Aubrey Plaza ("Parks and Recreation," "The To Do List"). There are a few other animals – most notably a dog, a bird, and a snake – that are also given voices. Ms. Plaza seems like a pleasant enough actress, and maybe that's the problem. Where's the grump? While Grumpy's dialogue indicates that she's in a perpetual bad mood, Plaza's high-pitched voice makes her come across as more of a sarcastic teenager. It's the wrong tone for Grumpy Cat – as least as far as my imagination is concerned. A deeper voice was needed (the late Bea Arthur would've been perfect). Plaza does the best she can, but perhaps making this a "talking animal movie" was the wrong way to go about it?

If it were up to me, I would've had all of the Grumpy's dialogue flash across the screen as text, similar to the hilarious memes found online. Then again, a talking animal flick that has more subtitles than a French foreign film might have been a disaster of another kind. Grumpy doesn't say that much though. Am I taking this too seriously?

The central storyline actually isn't that bad: A lonely little girl named Chrystal (Megan Charpentier) is looking for a best friend – which, of course, turns out to be Grumpy Cat. The supporting characters and side plots are more hit or miss. The best of these is a seemingly bumbling mall cop played by the underrated Daniel Roebuck, who knows what kind of movie he's in and has fun with it. Roebuck's character is obviously supposed to remind everyone of Kevin James in "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" – but in case anyone misses the similarities, one of the bad guys helpfully makes sure to call him "Paul Blart." Thanks for that! There's also a sad pet store manager. He's in danger of having his shop shut down by the big boss, who looks like an overgrown 15-year-old. The main villains are a couple of idiotic rock band stoners who break into the mall to steal a million dollar dog from that pet store. What the hell did I just type?

What follows is an escape attempt through the mall – oddly reminiscent of the 1980s horror cheesefest "Chopping Mall" – and a high-speed car chase, among other things. What? Were you expecting realism from a movie about a talking cat?

Grumpy's "imagination" is shown through little skits. In one of them, she envisions herself becoming an internet sensation. In another, "Worst Christmas Ever" turns into a black and white silent film for a minute or two. Clever cat!

There is one genuine surprise in the movie that caught me completely off-guard, but then I realized the reason why I was so shocked: because it made absolutely no sense based on what we had seen before. It's easy enough to bamboozle someone when a little thing like logic is thrown out the window.

"Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever" is at least self-aware. It's littered (yuk! yuk!) with in-jokes – such as when Grumpy narrates the logical course of action for one of the characters to take, but then concedes that the movie would be over too quickly if that were to happen. Even the Lifetime network doesn't escape unscathed from Grumpy's grumpiness. When the mother asks the little girl if anyone did anything to her, Grumpy retorts with, "No, that's another Lifetime movie." It's a genuinely funny and witty quip.

During the movie, Grumpy asks everyone to tweet the hashtag #WhyAmIWatchingThis. Good question. At least two other reviews I found used "the worst Christmas movie ever" in the headline. Not exactly original. (Sorry, Entertainment Weekly. Hire me anyway!) I prefer mine: "The Citizen Kane of Christmas Cat Meme Movies?" Since there's only one Christmas cat meme movie and I used a question mark at the end, it's technically not inaccurate. That and it made me laugh, so I kept it. But is "Worst Christmas Ever" really the worst Christmas movie ever? Not when Netflix is overrun with so much Christmas crap. One of the actual worst – and most offensive – is "A Country Christmas," in which a woman with terminal cancer ends up being cured by Santa's magic powers. If only one kid out there asks Santa to cure Mommy because of "A Country Christmas," it has already caused irreparable harm. Grumpy's cinematic sins seem mild in comparison.

"Worst Christmas Ever" isn't the worst Christmas movie ever – it's bizarre, certainly; memorable, yes (in a way) – but is it good? I don't know if I can go quite that far. This is strictly for Grumpy Cat diehards only. I'll confess: If "Grumpy Cat's Worst Vacation Ever" turns out to be a legitimate sequel and not just another in-joke made during this movie, I might – might – watch it. Like I said, I love Grumpy Cat.

"Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever" probably could have showcased its hilarious feline star in a much funnier way, but hey, at least this gives her something else to be grumpy about.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Review: St. Vincent

Bill Murray and Melissa McCarthy Share the Screen in This Unexpected Comedy-Drama

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 24, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 102 minutes
Director: Theodore Melfi
Writer: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, 
Naomi Watts, Chris O'Dowd, 
Terrence Howard, Jaeden Lieberher  

Who living among us right now would qualify for sainthood? It's a good question asked by Brother Geraghty (Chris O'Dowd), a priest who teaches at a Brooklyn Catholic school. The least likely candidate, of course, would be Vincent McKenna (Bill Murray). He's a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, compulsive gambler who frequently gets together with a "lady of the night" (Naomi Watts, complete with a ridiculous but endearing Russian accent). A single mom and her young son, Maggie and Oliver (Melissa McCarthy and Jaeden Lieberher), soon move in next door to Vince – and they have no idea what to make of their new neighbor.

Through a series of events and decisions that could probably only happen in a movie, Vin becomes a very unlikely babysitter for Oliver. The plot and performances both seem to be a step or two removed from reality, but it works because the film never once wavers from that tone – even when the story takes a more serious turn. Indeed, audiences will likely go into "St. Vincent" expecting a comedy, but the second half is unexpectedly dark and dramatic.

Also surprising: Melissa McCarthy, who usually provides the comic relief, plays it straight here. (She does have one scene, though – a meeting with the priests at her son's school – where she delivers perhaps the most hilarious line in the film.) Bill Murray, however, gets to dish out some great zingers throughout.

As you would expect from one of Bill Murray's offbeat characters, Vin isn't the typical babysitter. He teaches the boy how to fight and takes him to a bar and the racetrack. Unfortunately, betting on losing horses has left Vin deeply in debt – and at the mercy of the unsavory Zucko (Terrence Howard, in a small role), who has come to collect.

There are other developments, but those are best left for you to discover.

In most movies, the relationship between the old man and the little boy would be used as a predictable plot device to soften the main character's crusty demeanor – the tried and true formula of a child's wide-eyed innocence and its magical effect on that special crotchety someone – and then everyone lives happily ever after. "St. Vincent" doesn't make that mistake. What it does instead is peel away at Vin's layers to reveal a full-fledged but flawed human being that's more than just a collection of curmudgeonly film stereotypes.

The movie isn't perfect. There are a couple of loose threads – mostly involving Zucko and some money – and it can be slightly over-the-top at certain points. Still, by the time the film takes an emotional turn, these characters have earned our empathy. I felt for them, rooted for them, and wanted them to ultimately be okay.

Saints were originally human beings with their own set of foibles and failings, but as Bill Murray's character demonstrates in "St. Vincent," those obvious faults don't always tell the whole story about who a person actually is.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Horror Movies I Grew Up With: The 1980s

Exploring a Memorable Decade for the Genre

By Chris Sabga

Oh yes, that's George Clooney!

I was in a film class a few years ago when the professor started running down the 1980s as a bad decade for movies. Needless to say, her words left me in a state of deep shock. How could this be? The '80s were great. Okay, they weren't the '70s, where so many classic films and directors emerged; and they weren't the '90s, which was the period of the indie renaissance. But I'll forever defend the '80s as an underrated decade for movies. Perhaps no genre was better represented in those years than horror. Here are some of my favorite fright flicks from childhood:

A Nightmare on Elm Street (series – 1984-1994): A demented boogeyman goes around killing teenagers, but only in their dreams. Was I afraid to go to sleep afterward? Not at all! Freddy Krueger was cool. He had claws on his hands! I always wanted a Freddy costume for Halloween, but my parents said no. (They were probably right.) Ironically, the series became more kid-friendly as it progressed: Freddy was funnier by the third film. But I first discovered Freddy when he was still "scary." I saw the first two movies when I was only in the second grade. A friend recommended them to me. (What the hell were two 7 or 8-year-olds doing staying up late to watch stuff like this?) The series had its ups and downs, but I made sure to see all of them. My favorite: "Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare." Poor Carlos!

The Fly (1986): My sister still can't bear to watch Jeff Goldblum in anything. His transformation in "The Fly" from man to mutation after an experiment gone awry is just that good, disturbing, and chilling. With great acting by Goldblum and Geena Davis, and even better makeup and effects, "The Fly" is one of the greatest remakes of all timeand one of the most memorable horror movies of the '80s.

Phantasm II (1988): The "Tall Man" from the first film is back. I jumped into this series with this sequel, and truth be told, it's still the only one I've seen. When you're a kid, you're able to fill in the blanks and be more open-minded. I didn't feel like I'd missed anything. Watching it seemed like being in a waking nightmare – a delirious fever dream. It ranks among the coolest horror experiences of the '80s. It definitely left an impression on me.

The Lost Boys (1987): Today's teenage vampires – such as the ones in the "Twilight" saga – are moody little pretty boys who sparkle. I weep for the current youth of America. "The Lost Boys" was one of the first modern teen vampire films – if not the first – and it's still one of the best. These vampires were cool, dangerous, even a little bit scary. They didn't shine in the yellow sunlight – they shed red blood when it was pitch black, and they loved it. "Sleep all day. Party all night. Never grow old. Never die. It's fun to be a vampire." That was the advertising tagline for "The Lost Boys" and it's one of the most memorable of all time – and the movie itself lives up to it in every way.

Howling V: The Rebirth (1989): Don't expect Oscar-caliber acting, Oscar-caliber directing, or Oscar-caliber anything from this "Rebirth" to the "Howling" film franchise. Truthfully, I can't remember if I've ever seen any of the others, or whether this ties into those, but I doubt it matters much. The premise: A group of people are stuck together in an old castle, and one of them is the wolf. As the death toll deepens, so does the mystery. "Howling V" seems to be a loose take on the Agatha Christie novel "Ten Little Indians." A classic framework like that is almost impossible to screw up. Some stories just work no matter what, as this "adaptation" of sorts proves even with the barest of budgets.

Return to Horror High (1987): The dilapidated venue I saw this in – a rundown mall movie theater that had seen much better days – probably made this seem scarier than it actually was. I haven't revisited it since childhood, so I can't tell you how it holds up now. Somehow, I doubt it will have the same effect on me. I'd love to be able to claim that I noticed future megastar George Clooney and predicted great things for him based on his role here, but that would be a lie. I was only 8 years old at the time, and really, George probably wasn't exactly given Oscar-worthy material to work with. For years, I didn't even know if there was an original "Horror High" movie. (There was, but the two – oddly enough – appear to be completely unrelated.) I'll watch this again one day – if I dare.

Fright Night Part II (1988): I suspect this film has very few defenders, which is a shame, because it's actually the rare of example of a sequel that lives up to the original – and surpasses it, if you ask me. (I know I'm in the minority with that viewpoint.) The head vampire in "Part II" – the sister of Chris Sarandon's character from the first – is certainly much easier on the eyes. Ditto for the main character's girlfriend. It also features some pretty solid acting – especially from William Ragsdale and Roddy McDowall – and a good script with enough twists and turns to keep things interesting.

Some honorable mentions:

The Serpent and The Rainbow: The Haitian voodoo setting is deeply unsettling.

Hello, Mary Lou: Prom Night II: I vividly remember a chalkboard and letters of the alphabet coming alive – creepy!

The Monster Squad: Technically, I didn't grow up with this – I only saw it for the first time a few years ago, and it's more of a comedy anyway – but it's great fun with some hilarious lines. "Give me the amulet, you bitch!" makes me laugh every time.

Gremlins and Ghostbusters: What list of '80s "horror" movies would be complete without them? You've seen them already, of course. If not, what are you waiting for?

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Guest Editorial: Horror Remakes That DIDN'T Suck

Comparing the Remake to the Original

By Kevin Sowers

The air gets crisp, the clothes get heavier, and pumpkin spice monopolizes our taste buds. That means not only has autumn arrived, so has my favorite holiday, Halloween! Dressing up, candy, and perfect weather lies ahead! And what good is Halloween without viewing some of your favorite chilling movies? However, instead of the usual top five list, let's look into Horror Remakes That Didn't Suck!

These are in no particular order:

1. The Thing (1982): This classic from the 80's starring Kurt Russell and directed by John Carpenter, was a remake of the B&W Sci-Fi classic, "The Thing From Another World." This came out way before CGI came along, and to this day the special effects in this remake still hold up 32 years later. From the haunting score, to the suspenseful build up, this is definitely the perfect Sci-Fi/Horror mash up!

2. Dracula (1979): There have been countless "Dracula" remakes, sequels, reboots, etc. However, of all the versions that have been brought to us after Bela Lugosi's iconic portrayal, this one remains my favorite. Frank Langella plays the title role, having also played the role on Broadway. He just oozes charisma, and his scenes with Laurence Olivier as Van Helsing are priceless. Add Donald Pleasance to the mix as Dr. Seward, and you have, in my opinion, the best film adaptation of Dracula.

3. The Fly (1986): This chiller is based on the original, "The Fly" starring Vincent Price. However, the 1986 version starring Jeff Goldblum makes the 1958 version look like a Disney cartoon. The stunning special effects, along with the onscreen chemistry between Goldblum and Geena Davis, put this remake on the map, and set the bar high for any other remakes of other horror classics. Many of which, of course, have failed tremendously.

4. The Hills Have Eyes (2006): If you would have told me that one day someone would release a remake of a Wes Craven classic that would be far superior than the original, I would have had you committed! However, this version of the 1977 classic does just that. It probably helped that Craven signed on to produce this remake. The 2006 version is much more gritty and gruesome than the original. It also is better written and produced.

5. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978): The original 1956 version pales in comparison to this gem. In the 50's this film was a statement about communism and The Red Scare. In the 70's, it's all about alienation. No, not that type of alien. The fear of being all alone in this big world. Donald Sutherland gives a tour de force performance, as do Jeff Goldblum, Veronica Cartwright, and Leonard Nimoy. Kevin McCarthy, who was in the original, gives a fun cameo in the beginning of the film.

There you have it. Five remakes that didn't suck. Maybe Hollywood needs to revisit how they used to put out great remakes? I mean, if they MUST put them out there, then make them watchable and enjoyable. Who knows? Maybe they can put out something that could replace one of the five titles I listed as one of the greatest remakes.

Kevin currently resides in Wichita, KS. He is highly active in community theater and independent film-making with Sanitarium Pictures. Check out the 4 minute short he wrote and directed, Love Bites.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Matt's Movie Mortuary: Digging Deep Into the Mortuary

Five Under-the-Radar Gems for Halloween

By Matt Wintz

Yes, that's Judd Hirsch!

One of the big things around this time of the year is website after website, reviewer after reviewer, talking about the horror genre and making lists of movies that you should go out and see. Many of these lists of course use movies that many people already know: "The Exorcist," "A Nightmare on Elm Street," "Halloween," "Friday the 13th," and several others. While being the horror movie guy here for Silver Screen, I wanted to add my own list, but I wanted to do something different. I'm trying to stay away from "mainstream" or well-known horror films. So there's not going to be a "Halloween" entry, or "Paranormal Activity," but I do want to touch on a series of movies I'd definitely urge you to watch in the Halloween time.

A quick note, as my favorite movie of all-time, "Night of the Living Dead," is not on this list. That's because I will be writing a piece on that at a later time and how that movie single-handedly changed my life. Until then, however, let's take a look at a few movies I think you should dive into for the Halloween holiday.

<1> Hell Night (1981)

This film was the first movie I bought on DVD. I remember it well, picking up a new DVD player and deciding to pick up one movie for it too. Wanting it to be a horror film, I went over to the horror section of the Electronic Fry's I was at and began going through the titles. I found "Hell Night" behind a few others, the awesome artwork of Linda Blair screaming at me from behind a gate immediately drew me in. I bought the film and went home, watching it for the first time, and since then it has been one of my favorites. The story of four pledges needing to spend the night in Garth Manor plays as a bit of a slasher film and a little bit of a haunted house/monster movie. Against the grain of the time, there's no nudity, though Blair's outfit was enough for me to develop a crush on her.

<2> Return of the Blind Dead (1973)

The Blind Dead were the main antagonists of a four-movie series by Amando de Ossorio and they are a bit of a fun Spanish film series that have not seen anyone do any remakes of them over here in the U.S. That in itself surprises me. The Blind Dead are former Templar Knights who were doing all sorts of evil things and they are put to death by a mob of villagers, but not before they swear revenge. They get their eyes burned out by the villagers, and we are then cut to the 500 year anniversary of the village. And just in time for the celebration, the skeletal zombie knights rise from their tombs and ride their horses into town to cut up some people. The Blind Dead were always this creepy idea to me, skeletal zombies that can only go by what they hear, but when they find you will cut you down with swords or eat you type of monsters. I remember buying this on VHS thinking it had something to do with the "Evil Dead" films (this was released as "Return of the Evil Dead") and being disappointed when it didn't. Once my knowledge of horror matured though, this quickly became my favorite of the four movies and a great foreign horror movie.

<3> The Bay (2012)

Directed by Barry Levinson this was one of the many "found footage" movies I watched when binging on the genre a few months back. However, it is the one I've probably then watched a half-dozen times, always intrigued by it. It plays as a series of different videos found over the course of some time dealing with a Chesapeake Bay town that is plagued by sea creatures (a mutant form of Cymothoa Exigua) that get into humans and turn them into hosts before breaking out of them. Excellent for those with a disgust of "creepy crawlies" this film continues to fascinate me. The whole idea of toxins in the water due to hormones in chicken waste that gets into the water and the gory fun that ensues, all while keeping it in a "found footage" genre is fantastic. It's streaming on Netflix and definitely worth the 90 or so minutes.

<4> Phantasm (1979)

Might be the most "mainstream" title on here, Don Coscarelli's entire series is just mind-bending. Famous for the Tall Man, his flying silver death spheres, and creatures I've always likened to "zombie Jawas," I love this series and this movie. The story of two brothers and their ice cream selling friend Reggie taking on the supernatural Tall Man spanned from 1979 to present day, as a fifth film for the series, "Phantasm: Ravager" has been filmed and "Phans" of the movies are awaiting its release.

<5> The Halloween that Almost Wasn't (aka: The Night Dracula Saved the World) (1979)

While not a horror film this was a staple of my viewing as a kid. It was a TV special from 1970 that showed on ABC or the Disney Channel until the early 1990s and has never been released on DVD. Dracula, played by Judd Hirsch, brings together a Mummy, a Zombie, Frankenstein's monster, a Wolfman, and the Witch together for Halloween. Complete with Dracula's servant Igor, some fun (although maybe dated) humor, it's a cute story. For horror fans, Dracula even pokes fun at the other monsters for no longer being scary. If you can find it (I found it on VHS years ago) it's a fun piece of TV history (and Disco) that can be a little bit of a palette cleanser in-between all the gore.

Of course, I could make lists of all sorts of films that are always being played on Sci-Fi or AMC at this time of year, but these five are just a tip of the iceberg of horror movies sometimes looked over, but great for the holiday that is all about spooks.

However, it couldn't be a list of great movies without a few more well-known movies to throw in...

Horror of Dracula – Christopher Lee's first run as Dracula by Hammer Films, it is THE definitive Dracula for me.

Friday the 13th Part IV: The Final Chapter – The perfect slasher films. Blood, boobs, and Jason Voorhees.

The Fog – John Carpenter's original, ignore the remake at all costs!

Until next time, the crypt is closed.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Review: The Judge

Downey and Duvall – Court is Now in Session

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 10, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 141 minutes
Director: David Dobkin
Writers: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque, 
David Dobkin
Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, 
Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, 
Vincent D'Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, 
Dax Shepard, Leighton Meester, 
Ken Howard, Emma Tremblay, 
Balthazar Getty, David Krumholtz, 
Grace Zabriskie, Denis O'Hare, 
Sarah Lancaster   

Watching Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall – two absolute masters of the acting craft – go back and forth would be worth the price of admission alone, but "The Judge" is so much more than that. It's a genuinely great movie. At two hours and twenty-one minutes, it's a long movie too. It earns its length though. Despite its extended running time, it's tightly scripted. Every conversation, every line, means something and leads somewhere. That might be the most impressive feat of all.

Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.) is a successful lawyer. He's also an unpleasant man – a trait he openly admits to and almost seems to take pride in. He hasn't seen his family in years, but when his mother dies, he's finally forced to go back home. His very young daughter (Emma Tremblay) wonders if his father – her grandfather – is dead too. "Just dead to me," he explains. Who speaks that way to a little girl?

When we finally get to meet the judge, Joseph Palmer (Duvall), we can clearly see that the apple didn't fall far from the tree. The elder Palmer isn't exactly "unpleasant" like his son, but he is stubborn and has a definite sense of right and wrong. There's no arguing with this man when it comes to the law and the very best way to apply it. So, of course, he ends up being accused of murder.

A local man, Mark Blackwell (Mark Kiely), is found rotting on the road. Judge Palmer's car has Blackwell's blood on it. The judge's possible motive: Blackwell came through his courtroom before, and it didn't end well.

The judge always been self-righteous about the law, but would he take it into his own hands to get justice at any cost? The opposing counsel, Dwight Dickham (Billy Bob Thornton), is ready to argue just that.

The elder Palmer initially hires a well-meaning but inexperienced local lawyer (Dax Shepard) instead of his own flesh and blood. But I don't think it's a spoiler to mention that the son will, of course, eventually have to step in and defend his estranged father in court – because that is, after all, the basic premise of "The Judge."

The scenes between Downey and Shepard are some of the best and funniest in the film. Instead of the adversarial relationship you would expect from their characters, there's almost a sweetness to their scenes as the more experienced Downey gives Shepard tips on how to handle stress before a big case.

The cast, as you can see, is tremendous – and I haven't even gotten to some of the main players yet. There are two more members of the Palmer family, Glen and Dale (played by Vincent D'Onofrio and Jeremy Strong, respectively), who are Hank's brothers and the judge's sons. Glen is old, disheveled, and rough around the edges, but he's generally a good guy. When we first see Dale, it's at a funeral home – and he's holding a camera, which seems incredibly inappropriate. I was under the impression that he was a rude reporter who had pushed his way in – until Hank gives him a big hug. As it turns out, Dale has a mental impairment of some sort – or possibly a form of autism – but it's never really specified.

In any other movie, a character with a "disability" would be treated like the second coming of Baby Jesus – someone who can say and do no wrong – but that's thankfully not the case here. To this film's credit, Dale's family reacts realistically to him. For example, during one tense moment, Glen dismissively comments on Dale's obsession with video cameras by telling him to "film the vending machine."

Hank – Downey's character – also runs into an old friend, Samantha (Vera Farmiga), whose prominent tattoo seems to hint at a wilder past. At first, I found it almost jarring that a prim, proper, uptight lawyer like Hank would ever associate with the tattooed girl from the diner. But that's what makes "The Judge's" script so smart – even the smallest details, such as a tattoo, tell a larger story.

The acting is amazing all around, but this is primarily a showcase for Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall. Both of them wholeheartedly deserve Oscar nominations – and it wouldn't surprise me if Duvall, at least, ends up with one. Their best scene together – in a bathroom – is unimaginably tragic, but it also manages to be hysterically funny at the same time. Life is often like that. In lesser hands, a moment of that magnitude would be almost impossible to pull off. Old pros like Downey and Duvall make it look easy.

The title of "The Judge" refers literally to Duvall's Judge Joseph Palmer, but it also signifies every other character in some way – because they're all judging and being judged for something.

My judgment: This is one of the best films of the year.

If you go into the theater expecting a fast-paced and thrilling episode of "Law & Order" on steroids, you won't get that. The courtroom scenes are exciting and nerve-wracking, certainly, but "The Judge" is about more than just a case. It's about a father and son, a family, a town, a past, what it means to come from something, and why it's important to remember and hold on to what matters most.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Review: Gone Girl

Did He Do It?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 3, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama, Mystery, Thriller
Running Time: 149 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Gillian Flynn
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, 
Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry, 
Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, 
David Clennon, Lisa Banes, Missi Pyle  

"Gone Girl" is a pulpy, twisty, b-movie thriller – and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. It's great fun. In the capable hands of director David Fincher, writer Gillian Flynn (who penned both the screenplay and the bestselling novel it's based on), and a world class cast, this is one hell of a wild ride with many sharp starts, stops, and sudden turns.

Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) comes home one day to find a glass table broken and his wife missing. Where did Amy (Rosamund Pike) go? Is she dead? Did her husband kill her?

The entire film raises one question after another. I spent all 149 minutes of it wondering what was going to happen next.

As the police (played by Kim Dickens and Patrick Fugit) investigate, Nick turns to his twin sister, Margo (Carrie Coon), for support. A Nancy Grace-ish, tabloid-style TV reporter, Ellen Abbott (Missi Pyle), exploits every single detail of the case. The Dunnes are a ratings bonanza. A slick lawyer, Tanner Bolt (Tyler Perry), gleefully offers his services to Nick on live television should the need ever arise – and of course it will. A suspicious ex-boyfriend, Desi Collings (Neil Patrick Harris), shows up for the search party. Did he have anything to do with Amy's disappearance?

And that covers only the barest threads of the plot. Trust me, there is more – much, much more!

Ben Affleck had his fair share of critics earlier in his career, and there is still skepticism about him taking over the role of Batman, but he is remarkable here. He says so much with his face alone. Rosamund Pike is also extraordinary as his missing wife. Flashbacks lead us up to the day she disappeared. Carrie Coon does a great job too as the sister of Affleck's character. She's reliable and relatable – exactly the type of person you'd want by your side in a major crisis. Neil Patrick Harris crackles with a caring creepiness. It's a side of him we've never seen before.

I could go on and on about the actors – they're all fantastic – but one of the biggest highlights is Tyler Perry. He impressed me in "Alex Cross," but he takes it to another level entirely in "Gone Girl." He owns his role as a lawyer who claims to win the "unwinnable cases." He delivers his lines – some of the best in the film – with a relaxed confidence and sly smirk that makes him easy to root for. In a way, he seems to represent the audience. More often than not, he says what we're all thinking.

Lawyers – especially those of the cinematic variety – aren't always the world's greatest people (except for the ones who read this site), but Perry's character entertained the hell out of me and did right by his client. You really can't ask for much more than that.

"Gone Girl" reminds me of "Fatal Attraction" and "Basic Instinct" in many ways. Their stories aren't necessarily similar, but they all share the same loony vibe of over-the-top outrageousness. Let's face it: This situation is ridiculous. There's nothing realistic about anything that happens. It's based on a beach read and plotted like a Lifetime TV Movie of the Week. Tyler Perry's character even admits it. The audience I was with couldn't stop laughing for the entire second half of the film – literally non-stop chuckling at the sheer absurdity of what was unfolding. But all of that is okay as long as it works – and it does!

The core of "Gone Girl" really (bunny) boils down to the dynamics of a marriage – wildly exaggerated for dramatic effect, of course – but anyone who has been through the ups and downs (and downs and downs) of a committed relationship can probably relate.

The ending, which I won't spoil, initially had me throwing my hands up in the air and possibly uttering out loud a few expletives that begin with the letter F. Without giving anything away, it's a bit sudden. But after a period of deep reflection, prayerful sessions with my priest, and a delicious bowl of bunny stew, I am now of the firm belief that it's a brilliant way to conclude to a mystery movie like this. Others will naturally disagree.

I have no idea if those final moments are faithful to Flynn's book or something Fincher incorporated to give the film more of an "arthouse" element. If it's the latter, he needn't have bothered, because nothing else about the story is exactly "highbrow" in any way. That doesn't really matter though, because the ending is still very effective.

"Gone Girl" is a b-movie that's elevated by an acclaimed director, a-list actors, and several Oscar-worthy performances. It won't make anyone smarter, but there's something immensely satisfying about losing your brain for a couple of hours and enjoying a good, clean, missing girl mystery. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Review: Locke

Beyond Bane: Tom Hardy is the Next Big Thing

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: April 25, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 85 minutes
Director: Steven Knight
Writer: Steven Knight
Cast: Tom Hardy, Ben Daniels, 
Andrew Scott, Ruth Wilson, 
Bill Milner, Tom Holland, 
Olivia Colman

"Locke" clocks in at a taut 85 minutes. The entire film is spent behind the wheel of a car. The only person we ever actually see is the driver, Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy). He interacts with several people during his journey, but only over the phone. He calls his family, but he's not going home. He speaks to his boss and assistant, but he's not showing up for work in the morning. Instead, he's going to London – for reasons that will be revealed over the course of the drive.

Every other movie openly celebrates the irresistible allure of the open road. Not this one. There are no dazzling sights to see. Locke snails through an average English highway at night. Everything is dark and dull, ordinary and listless. One area blends into the next. Despite the mundane setting, the roads take on an eerie, foreboding quality.

In some ways, it's similar in structure to "Buried" from a few years ago – which featured Ryan Reynolds inside a coffin – but this is (thankfully) much less disturbing and claustrophobic.  

Flashing police lights add tension to an already volatile situation by slowing Locke down and forcing him to maintain the speed limit. Locke is locked in. Of course, there's always the ever-present threat looming of being stopped by the police and further delayed.

Then there's the matter of Locke's persistent coughing and sniffling. What does it all mean? In any other film, it would foreshadow the character's fate. But this is a driving movie without a road trip, no high-speed races or chases, and not an explosion in sight. One could possibly surmise that Locke's physical deterioration symbolizes the similar erosion of his life – but sometimes the common cold is just the common cold!

"Locke" plays with the standard "grammar" of film by taking the audience's expectations and subverting them.

This is an actor's showcase for Tom Hardy. Every scene hinges on his facial expressions and vocal inflections. It's an incredible performance. But special mention must also be made of his supporting cast, who have only their voices to work with. They include Ben Daniels and Andrew Scott (who play Locke's boss and co-worker, respectively), Ruth Wilson, Bill Milner, and Tom Holland (his wife and kids), and a few others he interacts with along the way – most notably Olivia Colman. In some ways, they have the more difficult job. They have to create relationships with the main character and further the story along – all without ever actually appearing onscreen. The two children ("Son of Rambow's" Milner and "The Impossible's" Holland) are especially strong in their roles. Mostly, they ramble on about a soccer match, but their enthusiasm and intensity really brings Locke's unseen family to life. Locke's overwhelmed assistant, Donal ("Sherlock's" Andrew Scott), is another highlight.

"Locke" is a unique experience. It won't be for everybody. For me, it's one of the coolest films of the year. Tom Hardy is a riveting presence. He's been in high-profile roles before (Bane in "The Dark Knight Rises"), but this puts him on the map as a major talent to watch closely. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review: Chef

A Cinematic Confection

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: May 30, 2014 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Comedy, Drama
Running Time: 114 minutes
Director: Jon Favreau
Writer: Jon Favreau
Cast: Jon Favreau, John Leguizamo, 
Bobby Cannavale, Emjay Anthony, 
Scarlett Johansson, Dustin Hoffman, 
Sofía Vergara, Oliver Platt, Amy Sedaris, 
Robert Downey Jr.   

"Chef" is a film about relationships. A cook's relationship with his food. A chef's relationship with his staff. A father's relationship with his son.

Chef Carl Casper (Jon Favreau) controls the kitchen of a major Los Angeles restaurant, but he's not the owner – that distinction belongs to Riva (Dustin Hoffman), who's more concerned about what's in the cash register than on the plate.

Despite those difficulties, Casper has a great staff: his sous chef, Tony (Bobby Cannavale); his line cook, Martin (John Leguizamo); and his hostess, Molly (Scarlett Johansson). They're all fiercely loyal to him. They love him. So does his ex-wife, Inez (Sofía Vergara), and their 10-year-old son, Percy (Emjay Anthony).

A prominent food blogger, Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt), is coming to the restaurant to review Casper's cooking. The chef wants to create a new, bold menu that will wow the critic's culinary senses. The owner disagrees. Keep everything the same, he says. "Play your hits!" Unfortunately, the chef's "hits" make him a tired nostalgia act instead of the vibrant visionary he used to be.

As Casper's boring molten lava cake bubbles over, so does his anger. A shouting match between him and the restaurant reviewer quickly becomes an internet phenomenon, and a mistaken public message on Twitter ignites a war of words.

Food is Casper's calling. If he gets a bit hot-tempered sometimes, it's because he cares so much about what he cooks. Like any artist, he's passionate.

But now he's also jobless – and there are no offers in sight.

Left with no other options, he reluctantly accepts his ex-wife's invitation to join her and their little boy in Miami for a week. It would be good for him, she reasons, to get away for a while and spend time with his son. Miami is where it all began for him: his culinary career, his relationship with her, and the birth of their child.

Inez urges Carl to consider opening a food truck. That leads to a meeting between him and her first ex-husband, a rich flake named Marvin (a scene-stealing Robert Downey Jr.). The off-kilter conversation between Favreau's chef and Downey's crazed character is one of the best and funniest moments in the film. Downey's presence amounts to little more than a cameo, but he makes every single second count.

Truly, all of the actors are fantastic. Favreau and Leguizamo share such an easy, natural rapport that it feels like you're genuinely listening in on two old friends. The same can be said for the love and pride Favreau's character feels for his boy; it just bursts through the screen. If I didn't know better, I'd think they were really father and son. Some of the best moments between them are the quiet ones – such as little Percy explaining to his dad how Twitter works, the concept of Vine's six-second videos, and what it means when a post "goes viral." Favreau is awesome as a 40-something-year-old who is behind the times technologically, and Emjay Anthony is heartwarming as the kid who just wants to spend time with his father "like they used to."

Once the food truck becomes operational, "Chef" turns into one of my favorite of all the genres: the road trip movie. This is where the film really shines. There on the open road, they talk, bond, take in the great sights (and smells), and discover new things about themselves and each other.

And then, of course, there's the food itself. Mmm Mmm! You will walk out of the theater wanting a second dinner.

"Chef" is not only a film about relationships, it's also about love. It was obviously a labor of love for Jon Favreau. In addition to being the star, he is also the writer and director. This is clearly a passion project for him – and it shows. He's taken all of the ingredients at his disposal and served us one of the year's best films.

Note: In "Chef," @ChefCarlCasper started a vicious "Tweet war" with @RamseyMichel that went viral. For a more pleasant and peaceful experience, you can follow me on Twitter @ScreenSurprises.

Bonus: Silver Screen Sister, the Second

I saw "Chef" with Silver Screen Sister, the Second. To preface this, I should point out that she's not usually the most attentive moviegoer. (For example: We watched "Black Swan" together – an unfortunate choice in retrospect – but she was too preoccupied with e-mails from work to notice anything "amiss" between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis during one of that film's more infamous scenes. Thank God!) However, at the end of "Chef," she was absolutely giddy. So was I. She said it was one of the best movies she's ever seen. High praise coming from her, even if she has only seen nine or ten other movies. ("Coal Miner's Daughter" is still number one, in case you were wondering. Has "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" fallen to number three?)

"Oh my God, I have been smiling about that movie since we saw it. What a great experience. Thanks for getting me out of my draining work rut to see it. It was so worth it!

The line [Chef Casper] used – about not having a plan and never having made any steps without one before – reminded me of something I was thinking a few weeks ago:

Maybe sitting still is going to help me get where I need/want to be. It IS moving forward, but just not in a direction I have ever gone in…"

"Chef," she said, was "life changing" for her.

It's an easy movie to love. One cannot help but feel an infectious enthusiasm for it.  

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Matt's Movie Mortuary: The Gruesome Splatter Films of Joe Spinell

A True "What If?" Story

By Matt Wintz

This edition of Matt's Movie Mortuary takes a look at two horror films starring Joe Spinell, who also had roles in more mainstream fare such as the first two "Rocky" and "Godfather" pictures.


Any movie that kicks off with blaring 1980s music and a montage of women working out intercut with a blurry female-led rock band as opening credits can't be all bad, right? How could a horror movie with jazzercise suck? Well, I was going to make sure to find out, and the fact is, it can do a little bit of sucking. Joe Spinell, who worked as a character actor and found a part in "Rocky" along with "Godfather" and "Godfather Part II" became well known to horror fans as the maniac in, well, Joe Lustig's "Maniac." Here in the film "Undertaker," we find him as an undertaker by the name of "Uncle" Roscoe but his murderous tendencies haven't exactly died off like the people whom he's hired to care for.

The story is pretty cookie-cutter in the aspect of Roscoe is a murdering undertaker bothered by voices in his head, and he spends a lot of time stalking women and watching "The Corpse Vanishes." From the get-go of the movie, I noticed that there might be more time spent to women working out then to the actual violence on screen, and this is a fact that definitely plagued the movie. For fans of women jazzercising, this movie could be your cup of tea, as there's no less than two nearly full routine workouts plus women jogging in the first forty-three minutes. In comparison, there are only three on-screen kills in the first forty-three minutes.

Character-wise, we have Spinell as Roscoe, the murdering undertaker. Rebeca Yaron plays Miss Pam Hayes, the teacher of Roscoe's nephew Nick who does seem to have this awkward hots for her while trying to show her Roscoe's parlor and that he might be keeping some of the bodies for some extra lovin'. What brings this about is Miss Hayes seems that teaching about necrophilia in a college course is acceptable, and this immediately makes Nick believe his Uncle is bumping uglies with the recently deceased.

Story-wise, the movie runs a little thin. While I can respect a film that is trying to be no-nonsense, the sad thing to this movie is the pacing is very slow. And not in a slow-burn, intensity building sort of way. It just seems to be a movie that is trying to hit certain points, but is crawling to get there. For the most part, editing is a series of cuts between shots that don't seem to fit well and there are several times where there are different scenes intercut. While this might be to try and show what's happening in two places at the same time, it kills the intensity of the scene when you go from a kill, cut to a couple in bed, back to kill, back to couple, back to aftermath of kill, back to talking, then cut to a scene that seems to be set a day later.

There were also decisions in this movie that I could see might have been made from a budgeting perspective, but made me laugh (unintentionally). For instance, it seems that a lot of people enjoyed public domain programming in the 1980s, as "The Corpse Vanishes" makes almost twenty percent of the films running time, along with clips from "The Terror", an Abbott and Costello piece, and Ronald Reagan hugging a monkey. I also noticed that in Roscoe's first onscreen abduction attempt, when he uses the syringe on the female victim, there's no contact with the needle on the victim. It seems like a good idea that when creating a scene like this, make sure the scene doesn't pick up the reflection of the whole needle in the light.

The film is noted as being Joe Spinell's final starring role, as he would die in 1989, and it's also written on the back that it was unfinished. From how the film ends, I was wondering if there was more to be done bet it never got a chance to be completed. Either way, while I respect the filmmakers giving Spinell another leading role and the attempt (possibly) to recapture the feeling of "Maniac," the film falls very short in both the movie's disturbing tones and onscreen violence.


I will also take this time to bring this writing to a little bit of a side-note, and that is Joe Spinell and "Maniac" and why I have always seen that movie in a good light among horror fans. "Maniac" was co-written by Spinell, who played the main character Frank Zito, and the movie was directed by William Lustig, who also has directed the entire "Maniac Cop" trilogy. "Maniac" tells the story of Zito who lives in a small apartment, surrounding himself with mannequins, and during the night drives through the New York City area murdering and scalping women, putting his newly acquired trophies on the mannequins. The movie marries the amazing special effects of Tom Savini, coming off movies like "Dawn of the Dead" and "Friday the 13th," with the gruesome scalpings and Savini himself having his head blown off by a shotgun, with a disturbed story of a man who stalks a woman who he gets to know and how his underlying mommy-issues drive him to brutal attacks. The movie, a cult classic and having one of the best posters in horror movie history, was actually remade with Elijah Wood as the killer Zito.

The movie was put out on DVD by Code Red in 2010, and along with the movie there is a short interview with actor Robert Forster, and then his daughter Kathrine, that briefly touches upon their thoughts of Spinell. "Remembering Joe" is only a few minutes and the elder Forster talks about how Spinell was interesting and the only time he ever played a good guy was in "Hollywood Harry" with Robert and Kathrine Foster. Kathrine Foster then tells of a story from the rap party of "Hollywood Harry" involving Spinell, a Glad bag, and a swimming pool. Finally, trailers for Code Red releases of "Nightmare" (aka Nightmare in a Damaged Brain), "The Carrier," "The Visitor," "Slithis," and "Horror High" round out our special features.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Remembering Robin Williams

Comedy or Drama, Silly or Serious, Was There Anything Robin Williams Couldn't Do?

By Chris Sabga

The world remains in shock. Robin Williams has died after apparently committing suicide. He was 63 years old. This particular celebrity death has hit harder than most – generating widespread feelings of sadness and confusion – as everyone is left wondering why someone so beloved and extraordinarily talented would want to kill himself.

The picture included here perfectly captures how most of the world saw him – funny and fun-loving, with a bright light in his eyes and always a mischievous twinkle – but the reality was far darker and much more complicated. He recently checked into a rehab facility and was also struggling with severe depression – a crippling double whammy. Williams admitted in a 2010 interview with The Guardian that he felt "alone and afraid."

The misguided among us will say "he had it all" or "took the coward's way out." Both statements are false and dishonest. The truth about depression: "It's a real illness that doesn't discriminate. No amount of money or fame can fix it. The funniest man on earth couldn't just think positive and be healed. Support those who are battling depression and other mental health issues. It takes lives!" ( via Facebook)

Indeed, it doesn't matter whether we're rich or poor, a world-renowned celebrity or an ordinary factory worker – the vice grip of depression can trap any one of us at any time. Winston Churchill perfectly referred to it as his "black dog."

We're several paragraphs in, and I've yet to mention the reason why we're all here and reading this in the first place: Robin Williams and his incredible performances over dozens of memorable movies.

Ask anyone, and they'll all have their favorites. Over the past 24 hours, I've heard so many classics rattled off feverishly: "What Dreams May Come," "The Fisher King," "Mrs. Doubtfire," "Popeye." Even "Death to Smoochy" has its fans.

To me, the all-time best Robin Williams performance came in 2002 with the deeply haunting "One Hour Photo." He completely disappeared into the role of lonely photo technician Sy Parrish. I said it then, and I'll say it again now: He should have won the Oscar for Best Actor that year. He wasn't even nominated!

"One Hour Photo" marked a dark, dramatic shift for the comedic icon.

Then again, Williams was never just a comedian.

The first Robin Williams movie I saw, as best as I can tell, was "Good Morning, Vietnam" in 1987. Williams played the inspirational Vietnam War DJ Adrian Cronauer and put his gift of gab to great use. His next major role – and probably the second time I saw Williams on-screen – was as English teacher John Keating in "Dead Poets Society." Once again, he was passionate and inspirational.

Both before and after, Robin Williams had an impressive body of work, but here are a few you might have overlooked:

Bicentennial Man: It's a long, strange movie – Williams plays a robot over the span of 200 years – but it tells a beautiful story about life, death, and what it truly means to experience both.

The Night Listener: A gay late night radio host receives calls on the air from an abused teenage boy...or does he? What's fact and what's fiction? This is inspired by events from the life of author Armistead Maupin, who wrote the book of the same name.

August Rush: Channeling the ghoulish Fagan from Oliver Twist, Williams is a nasty piece of work here, exploiting kids for his own financial purposes. Passionate about music, he discovers a young prodigy, whom he renames August Rush. This oddity of a film doesn't always work – the script is sometimes off-key, even if the music isn't – but I have a soft spot for it anyway.

RV: Is this great cinema or even top-notch entertainment? Hardly. But it's light and funny – and Williams and Jeff Daniels make a great comedy duo. Give this one a chance – it might surprise you.

The Final Cut: This movie almost completely falls apart at the end. The final sequence pretty much undermines everything that came before it. But this sci-fi thriller (also starring Jim Caviezel) is an absolute blast to watch until then.

And a TV role you may have missed entirely:

Law & Order: Special Victims Unit – "Authority" (Season 9, Episode 17): Williams dominates the small screen as the villainous anti-authority crusader Merritt Rook, who always seems one step ahead of the police. Even if you aren't a fan of the "Law & Order" franchise, this episode is well worth going out of your way to see for Williams.

I've undoubtedly left out many of his other overlooked roles. I've also neglected to mention the superb "Good Will Hunting," for which he won an Oscar. I didn't bring up "The Birdcage" either, or his small but fun role as a Catholic priest of the fire and brimstone variety in "The Big Wedding," or...

It would be impossible to cover everything he's ever done – that's what IMDB is for – but, man, what a career!

The legendary actor was also a huge fan of the "The Legend of Zelda." How cool is that? Not only did he appear in commercials for the revered gaming franchise, his daughter is even named after the character.

No less than President Obama himself had this to say about the life and career of Robin Williams:

"Robin Williams was an airman, a doctor, a genie, a nanny, a president, a professor, a bangarang Peter Pan, and everything in between. But he was one of a kind. He arrived in our lives as an alien – but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit. He made us laugh. He made us cry. He gave his immeasurable talent freely and generously to those who needed it most – from our troops stationed abroad to the marginalized on our own streets. The Obama family offers our condolences to Robin’s family, his friends, and everyone who found their voice and their verse thanks to Robin Williams."

As Obama so eloquently stated, Robin Williams made us laugh and he made us cry.

But he also made us think and made us feel.

His death may currently overshadow his life, but Robin Williams will ultimately be remembered as an actor who could do it all – and did!