Category Archives: Gut Reactions

Gut Reactions: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

Kick-Ass 2Director: Jeff Wadlow

Writer: Jeff Wadlow, based on the comic book series by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr.

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Chloe Grace Mortez, Morris Chestnut, Claudia Lee, Clark Duke, Augustus Prew, Donald Faison, Steven Mackintosh, Monica Dolan, Garrett M. Brown, Lyndsy Fonseca, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Yancy Butler, John Leguizamo, Jim Carrey, Robert Emms, Lindy Booth

Plot: It’s been two years since the events of the first Kick-Ass, and both Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Mortez)  have remained retired from action as the “real world” superheroes Kick-Ass and Hit-Girl. When Dave starts to feel restless but is unable to convince Mindy to get back into action, he finds a new team of citizens eager to fight to take back the streets. Meanwhile the former Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) finds himself with the freedom to take action against Kick-Ass for killing his mob boss father with a plan that could plunge the entire city into all-out war.

Thoughts: As big a geek as I am, I’ve never actually read any of the comic books the two Kick-Ass movies have been based on. I’m not a fan of the writer, Mark Millar, who I feel often goes for shock value at the expense of real emotion and discards characterization at a whim. Despite this, I liked the first Kick-Ass and wasn’t surprised that I thought the sequel wasn’t bad at all.

With news stories about “real world” superheroes like Seattle’s Phoenix Jones becoming more prevalent in the news, this story hits a nice chord that examines the philosophy of a person who would choose to put on a costume and try to beat up gang bangers at night. This time around, with Nicolas Cage’s “Big Daddy” character out of the picture, the relationship between Dave and Mindy becomes the center of the film. The two of them both shift back and forth between craving the life of a hero and trying to reject it at various points. What’s more, it’s easy to understand and even sympathize with both points of view – on the one hand, it’s a remarkably dangerous and (frankly) stupid lifestyle. On the other hand, when confronted with evil, how can a decent person simply choose to do nothing?

Interestingly, the most press I’ve seen about this movie in the last few months seems to have come from the fact that Jim Carrey, who plays “Colonel Stars and Stripes,” has chosen not to promote the film. Carrey says that the events at Sandy Hook Elementary last winter (which happened after filming was complete) affected him deeply and he cannot, in good conscience, promote violence. While I don’t take issue with him choosing a pacifist lifestyle, I have to wonder if he actually paid attention to the movie while he was making it. Kick-Ass 2 in no way promotes a violent lifestyle. While there is a lot of comedy in the film, and while some of the fight scenes are somewhat exaggerated, that’s not the same thing as saying they’re glamorized. The film clearly shows the consequences of violence in general and the lifestyle that Dave has chosen in particular, and neither of these are things that any sane person would willingly accept. In this movie, as in the first one, choosing a life of violence hurts, both physically and spiritually.

Which is not to say there isn’t fun. Mintz-Plasse’s character, embarking on a quest to become the world’s first real super-villain, is pretty laughable for most of the film. Even once it gets dark, when he starts to recruit real muscle to back up his threats, he’s still a caricature of every stupid, overblown villain cliché you can imagine. He’s a point of ridicule, a pathetic character, and would be pitiable if he didn’t pull off a few legitimately evil acts in the film. (It’s also worth noting that the film scales back on the comic book, dropping the most evil act he commits as apparently being too much to put on screen. I haven’t read the comic, as I said, so I can’t judge how well it worked there, but I do think it would have been too much on the screen.)

With so many superhero movies these days, it’s nice to see one that brings the action down to a (mostly) human level, that doesn’t treat average citizens as cannon fodder, and that shows that being a hero can hurt. There are two other comics in this series (a Hit-Girl spinoff and the currently in-progress Kick-Ass 3), and I’d be anxious to see both of those make it to the screen too. If not, I may actually have to break down and read the comics to see how the saga of Dave Lizewski finally ends.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!


Gut Reaction: Dark and Stormy Night (2009)

Dark and Stormy NightDirector: Larry Blamire

Writer: Larry Blamire

Cast: Jim Beaver, Jennifer Blaire, Larry Blamire, Bob Burns, Dan Conroy, Robert Deveau, Bruce French, Betty Garrett, Trish Geiger, Brian Howe, Marvin Kaplan, James Karen, Alison Martin, Fay Masterson, Susan McConnell, Andrew Parks, Kevin Quinn, Mark Redfield, Tom Reese, Daniel Roebuck, Christine Romeo, H.M. Wynant

Plot: After the demise of millionaire Sinas Cavinder, an eccentric group of friends, family, rivals, employees, reporters, total strangers, and a dude in a gorilla costume gather for the reading of his will. When the lawyer is murdered in the midst of the reading, the gathered survivors have to solve the crime, or any one of them could be next.

Thoughts: Have you ever gotten a disc from NetFlix with no memory of the movie or any idea why you put it in your queue, let alone how it got close enough to the front to actually make it to your mailbox? When that happens, you pop the disc in just so it doesn’t feel like a waste before you send it back, usually disappointing you in the process. But every so often, you get a movie that delights you so much you wish you could go back in time, figure out who clued you in on the film in the first place, and thank them.

Larry Blamire’s micro-budget motion picture Dark and Stormy Night is exactly this kind of movie. This black-and-white buffet of assorted cheeses is a loving tribute and send-up of old-fashioned murder mysteries, mixing together parts of Agatha Christie, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Clue with the sort of killers and freaks that made for the richest mocking in the glory days of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every actor, without exception, delivers their lines with an excess of camp and self-awareness, gleefully hamming up preposterous dialogue and overreacting to the most simple of situations. It’s as if somebody is deliberately putting on the most melodramatic dinner theater production ever made, and that’s what makes it glorious.

The show-stealers here are Daniel Roebuck and Jennifer Blair as competing reporters 8 O’Clock Farraday and Billy Tuesday, respectively. The two of them bounce off each other with energy and vigor, chewing through Python-esque logical leaps that eat up one noir cliché after another. Dan Conroy is funny as hell as hapless cab driver Happy Codburn, who only got drawn into the whole mess because Farraday stiffed him out of 35 cents. Jim Beaver’s Jack Tugdon brings in a sort of faux intensity to the proceedings, pulling in a taste of The Most Dangerous Game with his humorless (and, by result, hysterical) delivery of such lines as “I went to bed… once.”

Blamire drops in plenty of tired clichés and runs with them – Alison Martin as the terrible psychic Mrs. Cupcupboard, who has the audacity to announce “I sense death” while standing over a fresh corpse. The staff includes a butler (Bruce French) who seems to have some skeletons in his closet and a chef (Robert Deveau) who wields his meat cleaver in a particularly disturbing way, spouting out lines that feel like Norman Bates talking to Mother. Blamire even gets into the act himself, playing a stranger whose “car broke down” outside, then immediately asks if he can stay for the reading of the will, which nobody has mentioned to him yet.

As funny as the performances are, it’s Blamire’s script that makes this work. His lines go from painful puns to razor-sharp wordplay without missing a beat, and he takes great joy in using every cliché you can imagine for this sort of “trapped in the mansion” mystery, then deconstructing the hell out of it. I admit I was a little shaky about the film for the first few minutes, when we saw an obvious model car driving up to an obvious model mansion. But when the lights go off and the guests all panic until the frustrated maid (Trish Geiger) turns the switch back on and shows her exasperation when the idiotic guests behave as if she’s performed some sort of miracle, I found myself buying in entirely.

Most importantly, you really get the sense that the cast is having fun. None of them are making a fortune performing in a film released by the Shout! Factory, but all of them take what they’re given and run with it. Half the time when you go to the movies these days you get a film with a blockbuster budget and a bunch of actors walking through their parts, taking the paycheck, clearly having no passion for what they’re doing. Dark and Stormy Night is the opposite of that in every way, and it’s glorious because of it.

Looking up info about this movie for the sake of this review, I notice that Blamire has two other films with most of this same cast, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra and The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Both of those are going to the front of my NetFlix queue right away. And this time, I’ll remember how they got there.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reactions: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

74202_10151312194336999_1827486701_nDirector: J.J. Abrams

Writer: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman & Damon Lindeloff

Cast: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Benedict Cumberbatch, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve, Noel Clarke

Plot: Starfleet is rocked by a terrorist attack orchestrated by the mysterious John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch). As he escapes across the galaxy, James T. Kirk (Chris Pine) and the crew of the USS Enterprise begin a desperate chase to bring him to justice. And to say anything else would be majorly spoilery, so let’s pretend I’ve recapped the entire movie for a moment and wait until after you see the spoiler line below before I say anything else too specific, shall we?

Thoughts: When J.J. Abrams rebooted the Star Trek franchise in 2009, fans of previous incarnations seemed to fall squarely into one of two camps. On one hand, there were those die-hards who felt like the liberties and changes taken with nearly 50 years of canon went too far to be acceptable and couldn’t find enjoyment in the movie. On the other, there were those who were willing to accept the Abrams Trek as a different continuity, inspired by but not beholden to the original, and were therefore more forgiving of the changes. Although I certainly understand the feelings of those in the first camp, I steadfastly belong to the second. I really enjoyed the 2009 Star Trek, and although I tried to keep my expectations reasonable for the follow-up film Star Trek Into Darkness, upon finally seeing it, I think I liked this one even more.

Some general spoiler-free thoughts before I get into the real hardcore nerd analysis that will scare half of you away. This is most definitely not your classic Star Trek. Not only is the tone very different – more high-octane, rapid-fire action, and while the philosophy is still there it’s much more subtle and hidden under flashy set pieces and a hell of a lot of lens flares – but there are certain things in the film that just wouldn’t work based on the physics of the original series. (For example, it was well established that starships weren’t designed to operate in a planetary atmosphere, let alone go through some of the things we saw in this movie.) I had to make a conscious choice to let go of that sort of thing, because if you can’t, there’s really no chance of enjoying the new series. Having made that choice, though, I’m glad I did, because the spirit of this new Trek is incredibly exciting to me.

Abrams’s version of Trek places its emphasis on action. There are some brilliant sequences here, both in the CGI-heavy outer space arena and in more practical moments of hand-to-hand combat, all of which look good. The cast, once again, is great. Karl Urban has encapsulated DeForest Kelley’s Leonard McCoy in a way that would have been impossible to believe not long ago. Simon Pegg’s Scotty very much has the soul of Jimmy Doohan’s, and brings in some much-needed comic relief during the more serious moments of the film. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto as Kirk and Spock, of course, are still the stars of the series. Each of them has a character that’s more of a tangent to the original than some of the other cast members – you can see the blueprints of William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy in their performances, but they’ve been dressed differently. More about that in the spoiler section, though.

Benedict Cumberbatch, the man with the most British name in human history, steps into the villain’s role in this film and really steals the show. There’s a taste of his character from Sherlock here, in that he’s the smartest man in the room and he knows it, but replace Sherlock’s inability to empathize with an innate savagery and deep passion for his people (and hatred of virtually anyone else), and you’ve got someone who is scary as hell. Cumberbatch is not only a lot of fun to watch on screen, but terribly menacing at what he does.

Finally, a word for Michael Giacchino, who in a relatively short time has very much earned a place next to the likes of John Williams and Danny Elfman as one of the great movie composers. Bringing back both the classic Trek theme and the new theme he composed for the 2009 movie, Giacchino’s score fits the action and energy of this movie perfectly. He and Abrams have worked together several times now, on Super 8 and the Mission: Impossible films, plus on the TV show Lost. Add to that an impressive body of work for Pixar, and it has become very easy to put together a playlist of the greatest Giacchino scores ever.

Okay, I’m pretty much itching to get into the spoiler stuff, so those of you who haven’t seen the movie yet may want to head out. In closing, I really liked this movie, but I think a person’s enjoyment of it will depend largely on how they feel about Abrams’s new Trek timeline in general. If you liked the 2009 movie, this one will knock your socks off. If you didn’t, there’s nothing here that will change your mind.

And that’s that. Spoilers begin after the line:


In Into Darkness, we see an Enterprise crew that has been together for a little while now, but Chris Pine’s Jim Kirk has yet to let go of the wild, rebellious streak that defines him. While there’s something to be said for the character’s daring, he doesn’t know where the line is and he doesn’t understand what he did wrong when he crosses it. In this film, we see a real journey for the character. He sees firsthand what happens when somebody goes too far, and the horrific consequences of someone who isn’t willing to accept responsibility for his actions. Peter Weller’s Admiral Marcus is a nice counterpoint to Kirk in this – although he’s one of the ones who comes down hard on Kirk for breaking the rules early, at the end he becomes a reflection of what might be if an officer is left unchecked. As a result, we’re left with a slightly changed Kirk at the end – not one who will be unwilling to flout the rules for what he feels is right, but one who will be more aware of the consequences of his actions. Pine’s Kirk isn’t Shatner’s Kirk, but the man he is at the beginning of this movie wants to hide breaking the rules, while at the end I believe he will become the man who does the right thing but is willing to take the heat for it (as Shatner’s Kirk did in the original Star Trek III and Star Trek IV).

On the other hand, Zachary Quinto’s Spock has taken a rather wide curve away from Leonard Nimoy’s version, and I somewhat think that may be a direct response to Nimoy’s presence. Although Spock’s struggle between his Vulcan logic and human emotion was always at the forefront of his character, this movie really does show us a greater depth of struggle than Nimoy traditionally had. Quinto’s Nimoy has maintained a romantic relationship with Uhura (Zoe Saldana) for some time now – Nimoy’s Spock never had any such connection – and he makes it explicitly clear during the film that he fights to suppress his emotions. He also fails, and fails big, when Kirk dies saving the Enterprise, blowing up with rage and tearing across San Francisco to take down Cumberbatch’s Khan.

Ah yes, Khan. Let’s talk about Khan, shall we? This is one of those times where I sort of bemoan what the internet has become. While it’s a great communication tool, it can sometimes ruin surprises. From the minute a sequel to the 2009 movie was announced, people started asking “Will it have Khan?” When Benedict Cumberbatch was announced as playing the villain, people asked, “Does he play Khan?” When they said his character’s name was “John Harrison,” people asked, “But he’s really Khan, right?” I can’t blame Abrams and the rest of the cast and crew for lying – there had to be some attempt at surprise – but they were fighting a losing battle from the beginning.

Like the rest of the cast, Cumberbatch’s Khan isn’t quite the same man as the original series Khan. His accent isn’t as ridiculous and he never takes his shirt off to reveal a plastic chest, for example. Also, he’s not as upfront about his intentions as Khan Classic. He’s sneakier, more manipulative, toying with the lives of others to orchestrate events in the direction he wants them to go. In case the dedication at the end of the film doesn’t make it clear enough, this is a Post 9-11 Khan, and in that way, he’s scary. He’s also a lot of fun to watch, tearing through a squad of Klingons almost singlehandedly, and helping Kirk in their freefall through space between the Enterprise and Marcus’s warship.

This film uses Cumberbatch very well, but he’s not nearly the only callback to the original series’ two Khan stories. Technically, this is more analogous to the “Space Seed” episode of the TV show (certainly in terms of timeline), but Abrams and the writers never passed up an opportunity to remind people of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. An early scene has Quinto’s Spock reminding us that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” for instance, but from there the film pulls a nice switcheroo on us. Instead of Kirk watching helplessly as Spock dies to save the Enterprise, the reverse happens, with Pine’s Kirk dying to save the ship. The death, like everything else in this movie, reminds us of the original but kicks it up with more action and a heavier dose of special effects, but the result is the same: two men on opposite sides of a pane of glass, one of them dying, one of them grieving, both of them admitting to a friendship that stupid male ego or a suppression of emotion has left unspoken until now. Then we get one more callback – Spock borrowing Shatner’s bloodcurdling howl of “KHAAAAAAAAAN!” just before the final action sequence.

There was one more callback worth mentioning: Alice Eve as Carol Marcus. Sure, they tried to pretend she was somebody else when she first showed up (Carol “Wallace,” her mother’s maiden name), but like Cumberbatch as Khan there could never really be any doubt. This is the new timeline equivalent to the mother of Kirk’s son. Unfortunately, she’s one of the few things in the film that’s kind of wasted. She’s there to look hot in short skirts and underwear (which I’m male enough to admit she is very successful at doing), but she adds very little to the story. It’s likely that Abrams is setting her up to play a larger role in the series down the line, which I’m fine with. Considering how he found great moments for virtually every other player – including Scotty, Sulu and Chekov –it’s kind of a shame they couldn’t do the same for her.

The callbacks, by the way, may seem a little silly to some. They may seem a little over the top. They may seem like the filmmakers are winking at the camera. There’s a reason for that: they are. But they’re over the top and winking in a way that’s really acceptable to me. I think they work, and not just because I’m a big nerd and love that sort of thing (although I am). There’s an actual, honest, in-universe excuse for it if you look back at the first movie. Nimoy, as “Spock Prime” (as they’re calling him now) says that the altered timeline is trying to course-correct a little bit. Although there have been irreparable changes to the timestream, like the destruction of Vulcan, the universe itself is trying to adhere to the old timelime as much as it can. That’s the reason the same characters that assembled as the Enterprise crew in the old timeline all happened to wind up on the ship together in the new one as well. If you extrapolate that, it’s easy to explain the renewed conflict with Khan, Kirk’s introduction to Carol, and even Kirk’s death. (Since Spock wasn’t in place to die in this timeline, the universe found a substitute. And as Kirk, like Spock, was going to come back from the dead anyway, that was okay.) It may be more metaphysical than science fictional, but I like the idea of these characters being tied together by fate, bound by destiny. They are, to borrow a word from Stephen King, Ka-Tet, and they will be Ka-Tet in any timeline in which they happen to exist. These people are together because they’re supposed to be. And there’s something a little inspiring and very comforting about that.

So anyway, yeah, I really liked this movie. I can’t wait to see it again. And although I know Abrams might be a little busy soon with that “other” Star franchise, I really hope they find a way to bring him back to the helm of the Enterprise at least one more time.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reactions: Condorman (1981)

CondormanDirector: Charles Jarrott

Writer: Marc Stirdivant, based on the novel by The Game of X Robert Sheckley

Cast: Michael Crawford, Oliver Reed, Barbara Carrera, James Hampton, Jean-Pierre Kalfon, Dana Elcar, Vernon Dobtcheff, Robert Arden

Plot: Comic book creator Woody Wilkins (Michael Crawford) is about to debut his new superhero: Condorman. Woody insists on authenticity in his character, though, and travels to Paris to test the gadgets he designed for the comic. His friend Harry (Oliver Reed), a CIA file clerk, asks him to carry out a special delivery for which a civilian has been requested. The over-enthusiastic Harry goes too far trying to impress his beautiful contact Natalia (Barbara Carrera), who is actually a KGB operative.  Natalia returns to Moscow where her superior and lover Krokov (Oliver Reed) treats her cruelly. She decides to defect, and requests the agent known as “Condorman” be sent to retrieve her. Woody agrees to the mission, provided the CIA fabricate the rest of his comic book designs so he can test them in the field. Woody, Natalia and Harry are soon pursued by Krokov in a race across Europe to bring the beautiful spy to safety.

Thoughts: There is always a danger, when you go back and watch a movie or TV show you loved as a kid, that it simply won’t hold up. We’ve all been disappointed as adults, looking back and realizing things like the old Masters of the Universe TV show really wasn’t very good, or wondering how in the hell we were ever able to sit through Mac and Me more than once. Still, my fiancé Erin managed to secure a copy of this movie after she heard me mention how much I loved it back in the 80s, and I recently managed to find the time to watch it again for the first time in at least 20 years.

Condorman comes from the Disney company during that long stretch in the 70s and 80s when the company simply didn’t know what it was supposed to be anymore. After Walt Disney’s death in 1966, the company coasted on projects he’d already put in the works for a few years, then started to flounder, trying to figure out a direction now that its founder was gone. This film is the perfect example of that. The studio tried to simultaneously capitalize on the popularity of superheroes (thanks to the Christopher Reeve Superman franchise) and James Bond-style spy thrillers, while at the same time creating the sort of family friendly comedy that Disney’s live action properties were expected to be. The result is a film that fails to live up to the standards of any of the three.

That’s not to say the film is terrible. I mean… it kind of is, but at the same time, there’s something about it that still entertains me. Michael Crawford is chewing the scenery so much you expect him to blow a bubble, and James Hampton plays the same sort of big-smiling best buddy he is in most of his work. In fact, if you told me his character in this film retired from the CIA and returned to the states so he could raise his son properly before the family’s werewolf curse made itself known, I wouldn’t think you were that crazy. Just in terms of performance, Barbara Carrera and Oliver Reed are the ones that actually do the most acting. Carrera in particular is fun to watch, putting out a sort of Disney-friendly sensuality that you didn’t get to see often. In essence, she’s a G-rated Bond Girl, which is exactly what the script required her to be. (She would get another chance to be an sort-of Bond girl two years later in the infamous non-canon Sean Connery Bond film Never Say Never Again.)

The concept here is actually perfectly sound – a goofy, good-hearted man leaps at the chance for a little adventure and to test out the toys he’s only, until now, created on paper. It’s the execution that falls flat. The flying scenes are pretty uniformly terrible, with weak bluescreen effects and sometimes even visible cables. The rest of the tech is a bit more acceptable; the “Condormobile” in particular has a cool design and neat gadgets, and I can forgive the 80s-era computer display on the inside. Truth be told, to this day I occasionally fantasize about having a switch in my car that would allow me to blow off the outer shell and reveal a super-sleek high-speed sports car underneath. (These fantasies are usually prompted by sitting in traffic.)

I don’t want you to misunderstand me, guys. This is not a good movie. In fact, if the guys from RiffTrax could somehow get Disney to allow them to do a Video on Demand riff of this, I think it could be one of their greatest productions ever. But despite its cheese, this is one of those rare films from my past that I can look back on and still kind of love, warts and all. I can’t explain it, and I don’t feel the need to defend it. It’s silly, it’s crazy, it’s goofy…. And that’s why I like it.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reactions: Ruby Sparks (2012)

Ruby SparksDirectors: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris

Writer: Zoe Kazan

Cast: Paul Dano, Zoe Kazan, Chris Messina, Annette Bening, Antonio Banderas, Aasif Mandvi, Steve Coogan, Toni Trucks, Deborah Ann Woll, Elliott Gould, Alia Shawkat

Plot: After an early success, writer Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano) has been stuck with writer’s block for years and has found failure after failure in his relationships with women. Upon the advice of his therapist (Elliott Gould), he begins writing about a girl he sees in a dream. After a few dreams, the girl, Ruby (Zoe Kazan) appears in his home, miraculously brought to life. The two begin a romance that starts to crack when it becomes apparent that Ruby wants more of a life than the sequestered world Calvin has created for her, and in the end, Calvin finds himself in a struggle between love with the girl of his dream and trying to control that which he made.

Thoughts: Every so often those Netflix recommendations get it right. I’d never heard of this film, but when I read the description I figured I’d give it a try. I had no idea just how deeply it would hit me.

Admittedly, I may have a bit of an occupational bias when it comes to this movie. I may not be quite the success as a writer that Calvin Weir-Fields is (of course, as he reminds us during the film, he’s “no J.D. Salinger”), but I think any person who really pursues creative arts will be able to relate to this movie. The story hits upon a time in Calvin’s life when he’s struggling between crushing creative blockage and unbearable loneliness, something that’s all too real. And in fact, I can’t imagine there’s any writer out there who didn’t – at his weakest point – fantasize about doing exactly what he does in this movie. The idea of creating the perfect person, the perfect companion out of your imagination is tantalizing, powerful, and engaging.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-

Of course, this is just a fantasy, and like most fantasies it doesn’t really maintain if you hold it up to the light of reality. We all may have imagined being able to create the perfect girl, but a little critical thinking will reveal a thousand reasons this would be a bad idea. Zoe Kazan (who both played Ruby and wrote the screenplay) takes this idea and dissects it beautifully. Early on Calvin’s brother Harry (Chris Messina) points out the difference between this perfect, idealized girl and the realities of a functional adult relationship. When Ruby turns out to be more real and less idealized than Calvin thought, he begins to use his writing to manipulate her, which again backfires. His first effort makes her frighteningly clingy and needy, the next turns her into a bounding child. Even attempting to erase his mistakes bounces back on him, as he instead leaves her an emotional wreck.

The climax of the movie, I admit, is somewhat painful to watch. Frustrated and angry, Calvin reveals the truth of Ruby’s existence to her and “writes” her into performing a series of degrading, humiliating tasks (barking like a dog, for instance) to demonstrate his power over her. I cringed at each moment, watching him take someone he loved and turn her into a puppet. Each time he finished a sentence I found myself asking how he could do it, how he could possibly treat someone he loved in such a fashion, how anyone could be so frustrated that he’d do something that so utterly stains his own soul? Like the most painful things we see, though, it’s at its most horrible when we question what we would do in that same predicament. I don’t think I’d have it in me to do what Calvin does at the end, but it’s very easy to say that, knowing I’ll never have to face such a situation. In the heat of the moment, who can say what any of us are truly capable of? And if we ever did cross that line, would we ever be deserving of forgiveness, or capable of forgiving ourselves?

Although billed as a comedy, Ruby Sparks is definitely not cut from the standard romcom cloth that churns out so many practically identical movies a year. It’s not even the same as other “romantic dramadies.” For example, I recently watched Seeking a Friend For the End of the World, another romance from last year that treads the line between comedy and drama, including a dose of speculative fiction for the sake of the plot. In that one, Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley set out to find his lost high school sweetheart amidst the collapse of society that comes after final efforts to prevent an extinction-level asteroid from colliding with Earth fail. (Yes, this too is ostensibly a comedy.) While that movie wasn’t bad, in the end I found it sadly predictable. Ruby Sparks, on the other hand, isn’t predictable at all. Once Kazan deals with some of the more necessary tropes (showing how people react to this mysterious girl who’s appeared in Calvin’s life, a little interaction with his wacky family), the film is left in a sort of free roaming state where it could go absolutely anywhere. I never felt like I knew how the movie was going to end, which is probably the most exciting feeling I can imagine having during a movie. That open-endedness, that powerful, driving uncertainty finally brings us to an ending that’s ultimately sweet and hopeful, and a final line that couldn’t fit any better.

Again, this is a movie that struck me on a very personal level, which makes it difficult to say if I would recommend it to just anybody – I can’t honestly tell you if you would have the same visceral reaction that I did. But I can tell you that it’s well-written, well-acted, very emotional, and different from all the other cookie cutter movie romances in ways that satisfied me greatly.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reactions: Oz the Great and Powerful (2013)

Oz-poster1Director: Sam Raimi

Writers: Mitchell Kapner & David Lindsay-Abaire, based on the works of L. Frank Baum

Cast: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, Michelle Williams, Zach Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King, Tony Cox, Bruce Campbell

Plot: Carnival huckster Oscar Zoroaster Diggs (James Franco) is swept up by a cyclone and hurled away to the mysterious, magical land of Oz. There, he finds himself caught in a power struggle between three witches (Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams) over the realm’s vacant throne. A prophesy claims that a wizard from another land will save Oz from wickedness, but can this humbug of a man find in himself the hero that Oz needs?

Thoughts: Before I really dig into this movie, I think it’s only fair that I (briefly) tell you about my personal history with Oz, so you can understand where my opinion is coming from. Like most people these days, my first exposure to Oz was the 1939 MGM film, which I saw as a child and enjoyed. When I was a bit older, though, at my local public library (visit ‘em kids, they’re awesome) I found an entire shelf of Oz books by the creator, L. Frank Baum. I devoured the books they had (which, as it turned out, weren’t all of them), and since then I’ve been a devoted consumer of any book, movie, or comic book I can find that offers a different vision of the land of Oz. Although I think there is plenty of room in media for many, many different Ozzes (a phenomenon I discussed in more depth on my other blog yesterday), in my heart, my favorite visions of Oz are those that pay due deference to Baum.

And it’s with that perspective that I can say I enjoyed Oz the Great and Powerful immensely. (Don’t worry, I’ll put up a warning before I get into any spoilers for those of you who haven’t seen it.)

The biggest problem with prequels, as George Lucas proved, is that it’s difficult to maintain suspense when the audience already knows where the characters will be when the story ends. This isn’t really a big problem with this film, though. Baum gave precious little backstory on many of his main characters, and almost none on the witches of Oz (although subsequent writers would often turn to this as their inspiration), and that leaves the screenwriters an enormous amount of room to play in. They also create a version of Oz that is mostly consistent with the books, while still giving a few nods to the 1939 film that they know is what most people will use as their measuring stick.

The casting is very good. Zach Braff as Finley the Flying Monkey brings a totally unexpected element of comedy to the film, one that serves to give us a glimpse of light in very dark moments. Each of the witches feels very natural in their respective roles – Mila Kunis’s naïve Theodora and Rachel Weisz’s sly Evanora work very well as the sister witches, and from the beginning present an interesting question to the audience… which of the two will someday become the insidious Wicked Witch of the West, and which one has a date with a house that’s going to fall out of the next tornado?

Michelle Williams is almost perfect as Glinda. While Billie Burke’s portrayal from 1939 is that of a hands-off fairy godmother, the sort who prefers to pulls the strings and not get directly involved, Williams is a much fiercer, braver woman. The display of power she puts forth in this movie is impressive, and certainly more in keeping with the character Baum created. He didn’t go in for the pyrotechnics quite as much as this movie does, mind you, but it’s easy to see Williams’s Glinda capable of maturing into the strong, confidant witch she becomes in the original books.

Then there’s Oz himself, James Franco. Oddly enough, he’s the only one of the main cast that doesn’t always work for me, and it’s for an strange reason. Franco plays Oz as a snake oil salesman, a con man who has a good heart buried somewhere deep inside, and that’s all well and good, that’s how he should come across. But there are moments in the film where it feels like he’s actually overselling the overselling, moments where you’d want Sam Raimi to ask him to dial it back down to 11 from 12 or 13.

As for Raimi’s directing… it’s fantastic. His visual effects team has built a brilliant, remarkable Oz that satisfies me on absolutely every level. Even the 3-D in this film is superior to most others. It’s funny – I’ve long said that I’ve never seen a movie that convinces me that 3-D is a tool that improves storytelling, that there is no movie that does for 3-D what the 1939 The Wizard of Oz did for color… and this film almost does it. Raimi’s transition from Kansas to Oz is a truly remarkable moment, and one that uses 3-D in a very clever way, similar to the way the ’39 film did with color. It’s visually stunning and, for a few scarce moments, I was glad I saw it in 3-D. Then later on he starts throwing monsters and spears straight at the camera and I was over it. Raimi also throws in a few moments of self-reference, which I think are fun as well… there’s one scene that’s almost straight out of his own Army of Darkness, which had my friends and me in hysterics, probably because we’re the only people in the theater that got the joke.

I’ve got other things to say about this movie, including a few problems, but nothing I can discuss without putting up a spoiler wall. So if you’ve read this far and you haven’t seen the movie yet, let me assure you that it has my wholehearted recommendation. It’s a great fantasy film, probably too scary for the little kids, but well worth watching in the movie theater. And I won’t even judge you for choosing the 3-D this time.

SPOILERS AFTER THIS LINE. ———————————————————————————————-

Aside from Franco being a bit over the top, my biggest problem with the story itself is one of timing… not pacing, timing. Once Franco arrives in Oz, it feels like things happen entirely too fast. For one thing, I think it’s clear too early in the film that it is Theodora, not Evanora, who is fated to become the Wicked Witch of the West. In fact, I think it’s clear too early that Evanora is the real villain, and not the “Wicked Witch” the sisters are warning us about. Granted, as soon as we learn the “Wicked Witch” is named Glinda, the audience should know Franco is being conned, but that moment should be played as a reveal and never really gets that chance.

Theodora’s emotional turns are also hurt by the sheer speed of the piece. I’m not entirely sure (after just one viewing) but it seems like no more than three days pass between her meeting Oz and her transformation. In that time she falls madly in love with him, decides she’s going to marry him and become his queen, and then grows to utterly hate him when she sees a glimpse of him talking to Glinda and learns that he “romanced” her sister the same way he did her. (Incidentally, I think the film does a nice turn leaving it a little ambiguous as to whether or not this actually happened. We see Oz work his charms on various women in the movie, but never Evanora, which leads me to suspect he never did. Instead, I got the impression Evanora pulls off the con on her sister because she was spying on the two of them in her globe the whole time.) The sheer speed with which Theodora’s affections turn weakens the character, making her the fantasy equivalent of the internet Overly Attached Girlfriend meme. Even more problematic, she truly becomes wicked not because her heart is broken, but because after her heart is broken she allows her sister to make her evil. It’s still the character making a choice, but I think it’s a weak choice, she doesn’t “earn” her evil, so to speak… not so much a monster as a victim, which will give her death at Dorothy’ s hands a level of forced tragedy I don’t think works.

It seems very clear to me that this movie was made to be the beginning of a franchise, despite its prequel status – and in fact, Disney was already talking about sequel plans the day before the movie was released. I’ve got no problem with this turning into a franchise, but it’s a little too obvious that was the intent… instead of taking us from point A to point Z (“Z” being where The Wizard of Oz begins), this gets us to about… let’s say “J.” The film ends with Oz in power and the witches banished, but there are a lot of things that don’t mesh up. Evanora doesn’t have the Silver Shoes (or, if you insist on going with the MGM version, Ruby Slippers). Theodora isn’t in command of the Flying Monkeys. Both sisters have been driven out and humiliated, where Evanora pretty much has dominion over Munchkinland when the original begins. Probably lots of other little bits I’m forgetting now, but will remember when I (inevitably) see the movie again.

The biggest sequel hooks come in for the Wizard himself, though… specifically, he’s not the recluse we know he’s doomed to become. He and Glinda have a romantic relationship, which simply doesn’t fit the first movie (or any other incarnation, for that matter). This gives the screenwriters a delicate task – they have to do something to alter the relationship in such a way that they are no longer together, that he has retreated into his palace, but where she still has enough faith in him to send Dorothy down the Yellow Brick Road when she drops from the sky. Then there are Finley and the China Girl, Oz’s surrogate family. Their inclusion in this story is actually wonderful, but it has us poised for tragedy. The moment Finley swears his life debt to Oz, pledging to remain with him until he (Finley) dies, I had a chill at every moment he was in danger. We know that the Wizard has no Finley when Dorothy arrives, and there’s simply no way the character Zach Braff played would ever turn on his friend… which leaves only one possible reason for his absence in the later stories.

I appreciated a lot of the little touches that were brought in from the original book, for example, the inclusion of all four of the peoples of Oz, and not only the Munchkins as the original film did. The prominence of the China Town was good too, although it does raise the question of how it will be rebuilt to the point it will be when Dorothy arrives. (Then again, as this is a point left out of the original film, perhaps the filmmakers don’t plan to address it again.) And although there were a few creatures we encountered that didn’t come straight from the books, there was nothing that would feel out of place in a Baum story, and so I’m perfectly happy with that.

As a lifelong Oz fan, though, there’s one glaring red flag waving in my face, one thing that simply flat-out contradicts any version of Oz I’ve ever seen, one thing I’m having a little trouble getting over, and that’s the notion that Glinda is the daughter of the murdered King of Oz. This doesn’t fit in anywhere, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it… not only idea that Glinda is the king’s daughter, but also the question of what this means for the true ruler of Oz in the original novels, Princess Ozma. Considering how much work was done to mine the book, making a change of this magnitude is really troublesome to me. At the end of the movie, I kept waiting for an exchange like this:

OZ: Hey, if your father was the king, doesn’t that mean you should be queen?

GLINDA: No, I had to renounce my claim to the throne when I chose to become a witch. My sister was supposed to take over, but she’s been missing ever since our father died.

Not a perfect solution, I admit, but at least it would be something. The point is, it’s not a minor quibble, but a major chance to the Oz canon that I think the sequels simply have to address.

That said, as big an issue as I have with that element, I still really enjoyed this movie. It’s a modern Oz with a timeless feeling, which is as much as anybody could possibly have hoped for, and I hope to see Disney march forward with this franchise for a long time… even, if they have the guts, rolling into an actual adaptation of the original novel. Despite all the different versions of Oz that have hit the screen, very few filmmakers have dared try a full-on adaptation of the original, fearing comparisons to the MGM film. If the Disney juggernaut doesn’t have the courage to finally make a version of The Wizard of Oz that’s closer to the book, nobody ever will. And that, my friends, is where I really want to see this franchise go.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Birdemic-Shock and Terror (2010)

birdemicDirector: James Nguyen

Writer: James Nguyen

Cast: Alan Bagh, Whitney Moore, Janae Caster, Colton Osborne, Adam Sessa, Catherine Batcha, Patty van Ettinger, Rick Camp, Stephen Gustavson, Danny Webber, Mona Lisa Moon

Plot: Rod (Alan Bagh), a preposterously successful software salesman, meets Natalie (Whitney Moore), an up-and-coming supermodel. As the two begin a romance that was clearly written in the stars, legions of birds lose their minds and begin attacking humanity because Global Warming is a thing. Warning: Do NOT attempt to take this movie seriously. Normally I would also include a spoiler warning, because I will talk some spoilers, but with a movie this remarkably stupid they aren’t so much “spoilers” as they are “cautionary examples.”

Thoughts: For a couple of years now, I’ve heard people talk about Birdemic: Shock and Terror as the new “So Bad It’s Good” movie, placing it in the ranks of dubious classics like The Room, Troll 2, and the über-entry in that category, Plan 9 From Outer Space. There are a lot of bad movies, but for a movie to be so bad as to be entered into that pantheon takes an awful lot of effort on the part of a director that is seriously delusional and, more often than not, a cast that wonders what the hell it got itself into.

My friends. On that front, Birdemic: Shock and Terror totally delivers.

James Nguyen’s 2010 film is the clunkiest, least-effective attempt at a “nature gone bad” horror film I’ve ever seen, so bad in fact that it’s hard to know exactly where to begin. It seems clear that Nguyen was attempting to emulate Alfred Hitchcock’s classic The Birds, which also featured a young couple that meets early in the film, a slow build to establish their relationship, and a sudden, inexplicable attack by birds that dominates the rest of the movie. However, Nguyen manages to take these elements that Hitchcock used in a masterpiece and screw every single one of them up.

Let’s take the slow beginning. In Hitchcock’s film, while it does start slowly, he’s building an interesting group of characters with dynamics, personalities and relationships that could probably sustain a movie even without the threat of lunatic bird attack. Not so Nguyen. Rod works as a salesman for a software company that gets sold for a billion dollars (an even billion, that’s right) right after he makes a big sale worth a million dollars (after giving the client a 50 percent discount). Natalie, meanwhile, is informed at the beginning that she’s been selected as the next Victoria’s Secret cover girl, which delights her mother, who also suggests she look into selling real estate as a back-up. However, despite the fact that these two people are remarkably successful, almost every location in the film (including their homes, motel room, and places of business) look like they were shot in the same spare bedroom of a cheap apartment with a half-assed attempt at decoration by changing the bedspread and swapping out laughably small signs the local print shop turned out for a grand total of sixteen dollars.

What’s more, their incredible success never factors into the movie. Rod’s salesmanship? His money? Natalie’s… covergirl-ness? Once the bird attack begins — an unforgivably long 45 minutes into this stinker – all of that immediately becomes irrelevant. Again, this is Nguyen at least trying to emulate Hitchcock. In The Birds, many of the circumstances behind Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor’s meeting (oh geez, Rod Taylor, I just realized what Nguyen was trying to do there) cease to matter, but the character dynamics and the local politics of the small town they’re in are still important. For example, we feel bad when Rod Taylor’s ex-girlfriend dies trying to protect his little sister. When the main characters of Birdemic find their two best friends (who also happen to be dating one another, although somehow neither Rod nor Natalie knew this when they started dating) dead in a car, the audience really only wonders what the point was in including them in the film at all, as they contributed exactly nothing.

The only thing worse than the writing in this movie is the special effects used to create the birds. From the first time we see a bird – a trio of parrots circling a tree – it becomes clear we’re in for a treat. This is the worst, weakest CGI I have ever seen, without qualification. On TV, in theaters, in direct-to-video releases, on viral videos on the internet, every human being who has ever attempted to make pixels on a computer screen move was more successful than the people who made Birdemic. The dancing baby from Ally McBeal looks realistic and lifelike in comparison to the birds in this movie. They attack in droves, sometimes, dive-bombing random targets and exploding, with fire that stays exactly in the spot the bird made contact and burns upwards in a perfect column. They hover – eagles that hover – in front of windows or cars. And whenever one of the characters manages to shoot a bird, that bird they hit inexplicably becomes the only one in the shot, popping in a manner reminiscent of an arcade-style duck hunting game circa 1991.

There is one aspect, however, in which this film clearly and deliberately rejects the framework of Hitchcock’s classic. In his film, as well as in the Daphne Du Maurier story upon which it is based, no explanation for the bird attack is ever given. James Nguyen turns this trope on its ear by giving us multiple, increasingly stupid explanations for what’s happening, all of which boil down to the same thing: Global Warming. That’s right, friends, everything in this movie is because of Global Warming… somehow. One random scientist they meet standing on a bridge blames Global Warming for a pile of dead birds on the ground, but then soundly rejects the notion that it could be responsible for the bird attack. A nutcase in the woods (wearing a wig so terrible that your delusional Uncle Morty suddenly will feel incredibly dapper by comparison) blames Global Warming for the deaths of certain trees and the explosion in the bark beetle population, which… also somehow made the birds go crazy?

Whatever, it’s obviously Global Warming, because we are told the birds are only attacking people in cars or at gas stations. Except for that one time it kills a girl trying to go to the bathroom in the middle of an open field. We also have to accept the danger despite the fact that in the background of almost every single shot we can see a steady, orderly stream of two-directional traffic completely unmolested by birds, because Nguyen couldn’t afford to shut the roads down when filming and couldn’t be arsed to find a road that didn’t have a lot of traffic on it. If that wasn’t enough, the characters sometimes pause the film to talk – in stilted dialogue that would get you kicked out of a high school drama club – about how great their hybrid cars are, including one that gets exactly 100 miles to the gallon, and walk around discussing how great they think the movie An Inconvenient Truth is. (This is an actual line of dialogue: “What a great movie. An Inconvenient Truth.” Because evidently Rod’s idiot friends forgot what movie they all just ostensibly watched together. Incidentally, I’m told that film is the perfect choice for a double-date.)

Everything about this movie is horrible, ill-made, and heavy-handed. By the time it was over I expected to see Al Gore, the Dancing Baby and Alfred Hitchcock (appearing as a Jedi ghost) to release a joint statement emphasizing that James Nguyen in no way speaks for them.

BUT… you gotta watch this.

Don’t watch it the way you usually would, of course. Don’t just turn it on as a bit of entertainment for two hours, because it fails on every possible level. But when you get your friends together with the intent of ripping into a crappy movie, this is a perfect choice. If you get the RiffTrax version of the film, Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy give us one of the funniest riffs they’ve done in their decades of mocking terrible movies. Unlike some movies, which could be used for torture, this movie could be an alternative to taking anti-depressants. What’s better – popping a Xanax, or watching Rod and his friends use metal clothes hangers to try to fight off a flock of CGI birds that are hovering mere inches in front of their faces but that they cannot seem to hit, mainly because the computer effects team couldn’t move the birds somewhere that they might actually come close to one of the spastically-flailing hangars?

A while back, the TV show Mythbusters proved that – despite the old adage – it is in fact possible to polish a turd. They could have saved themselves the trouble and just watched Birdemic.

For my take on a much better film that uses some of these tropes, The Birds was one of the “bonus films” available only in the eBook edition of the first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen. It’s now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Paranorman (2012)

ParanormanDirectors: Chris Butler & Sam Fell

Writer: Chris Butler

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Tucker Albrizzi, Anna Kendrick, Casey Affleck, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Leslie Mann, Jeff Garlin, Elaine Stritch, Bernard Hill, Tempest Bledsoe, Alex Borstein, John Goodman, Hannah Noyes, Jodelle Ferland

Plot: Norman Babcock (Kodi Smit-McPhee) was born with a terrible gift – the ability to see and communicate with ghosts. The problem is, nobody believes him, except for his mysterious Uncle Prendergast (John Goodman), who has the same power. Prendergast warns Norman that a witch’s curse is about to overwhelm his small town unless he can stop it… but the spirits of the undead may not even be the worst danger – first Norman has to navigate a sea of school bullies, unbelieving townspeople, and parents who think something is wrong with him.

As always, this Reel to Reel is not simply a review, but a study of the themes and tropes of the movie. So fair warning: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD.

Thoughts: Last fall we got hit by not one, but three stop-motion films that seemed to be grasping for the young Halloween-lover’s moviegoing dollars: this, Hotel Transylvania and Frankenweenie. I wanted to see all three, so naturally, circumstances conspired to keep me from seeing any of them. Now that they’re rolling out on DVD, I’m making up for lost time.

From the basic description, it’s impossible not to see Paranorman as taking some of its lead from The Sixth Sense – both films are about young boys with the ability to talk to the dead and the earlier film is far too large a cultural milestone to imagine writer Chris Butler could have been unaware of it. It’s even less likely when you realize just how culturally aware this movie is – it’s full of tiny little jokes, tidbits and Easter Eggs that link us to the great horror movies of the past — gags about zombie movies, Norman’s friend Neil showing up in a hockey mask, and Norman’s phone having John Carpenter’s Halloween theme as his ringtone being some of the most prominent examples.

That said, this isn’t a problem for the movie at all. In fact, you could almost look at Paranorman as a sort of thematic sequel to M. Night Shyamalan’s breakthrough film. At the end of that movie, Haley Joel Osment’s Cole Sear character had started to make peace with his ability to talk to the dead and was attempting to use his ability to help spirits in need. Norman Babcock is at that point when this movie begins, but an unbelieving family and the fact that the town is aware of – but doesn’t believe in – his power helps make him a real outcast, perfectly positioning him to be the hero when the zombies hit the fan.

Chris Butler and Sam Fell are clearly drawing from the Tim Burton/Henry Sellick school of filmmaking. Although parents frequently forget, a lot of kids love the creepy and the macabre. It’s why Roald Dahl is still popular, why the Universal Monsters will never die, and why The Nightmare Before Christmas is still the most popular thing Tim Burton’s name has ever been associated with. Kids, however, don’t really want to be legitimately scared the way adults sometimes do. Kids want the trappings of horror around them, because it makes them feel older, like they can take it. Plus, that line between terror and laughter is really very slim. (I may have mentioned it before.)

The interesting thing about Paranorman is that it treads the line between an all-ages movie and an adult film very carefully, but not only in terms of the horror content. When Mitch (Casey Affleck) drop-kicks a zombie’s head, that’s a little gross… but part of my brain was still processing the moment a few minutes before when he was joking about his little brother Neil (Tucker Albrizzi) freeze-framing their mother’s aerobics DVDs, with a screenshot that leaves no room for interpretation as to what he’s looking for.

Like the horror, the comedy in this movie draws heavily from classic sources. Zombie hands chasing after people feel like they could have been dragged out of a Three Stooges short or an episode of The Addams Family. The mob violence calls to mind Frankenstein in the campier moments of the franchise, and the script even drops in a shout-out to Scooby-Doo. The action, on the other hand, evokes some of the great kids’ adventures movies of the 80s. We used to get movies like Explorers, like Monster Squad, like the greatest kids’ adventure of all time, Goonies, in which the young have to come together to fight the bad guy or save the day. I grew up in this mythical fairyland – it was called the 80s. Halfway through the movie, Paranorman takes a turn in this direction, when Norman and Neil are joined by their older siblings and the school bully, none of whom can afford to remain skeptical anymore, what with the actual hordes of the undead coming after them.

The way those characters come together, though, is pretty realistic. Norman’s sister Courtney (Anna Kendrick) turns against him, even after they’ve all fought the monsters and know for a fact he isn’t just crazy. Alvin the Bully (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is still a jerk. Neil’s brother Mitch (Casey Affleck) is still a bonehead. In a lot of movies, these lesser antagonistic characters turn on a dime and join the heroes in the face of a greater threat (such as in the legendary Shakespearean drama Ernest Goes to Camp.) Things don’t go nearly so well for Norman, who really has only one stalwart in his corner, and when the story begins, it’s Norman who tries to reject Neil. The characters do come around eventually, of course, because that’s the sort of story this is, but it doesn’t come easily. They need real convincing, an idea that becomes more important at the climax when Norman confronts the witch and tries to talk her down from the monster she’s become to the little girl she once was.

The big moment for the film, the one where we really start to understand we’re in a complex world where nothing is black and white, is when Norman gets a pensieve-style glimpse into the sentencing of the witch Agatha Prendergast (Jodelle Ferland), who started all this in the first place when she cursed the people who condemned her. At this point, after an hour of running from the monsters, everything becomes clear. Agatha was a child when she was condemned – we’re not seeing a spell cast by a bloodthirsty witch, we’re seeing a tantrum being thrown by a scared, powerful child. Then the next domino falls – the zombies beg Norman to complete the ritual to put Agatha asleep again for another year… they aren’t out for blood, they just want the curse to end.

In truth, it takes a bullied, misunderstood child to comprehend what a bullied misunderstood child actually needs, and that’s as true in this movie as it is in real life.

Although rated PG, I would be hesitant to show this movie to some kids. The mass numbers of double entendre aside, a lot of the monsters and violence – although played for laughs – are perhaps a little too realistic for the littlest of them. If you’ve got a kid under 10, I’d recommend watching the movie yourself first to decide if you think your kid can handle it. If you’re older, though – if you’re from that demographic that loves Nightmare Before Christmas, Beetlejuice, The Munsters, this really is an excellent movie.

Don’t forget the first Reel to Reel movie study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and bookstore. And you can find links to all of my novels, collections, and short stories, in their assorted print, eBook and audio forms, at the Now Available page!

Gut Reaction: Django Unchained

Welcome to the first of my Gut Reaction reports, guys. This will be my blanket term for when I give my thoughts about a film fairly soon after watching it – hopefully the same day, if not within the first few days. As such, these may not be quite as deep or complex as the regular Reel to Reel episodes, but it will also make for a way to record early thoughts and early reactions to a movie, which I’ve learned are not necessarily always the same as the opinion I ultimately settle on after having time to think it over and allow my thoughts to collect. Also, since I will often write about movies that I’ve seen in theaters, don’t expect a detailed synopsis. I can’t really write a beat-for-beat report the way I do for my other projects, people tend to get irritated at that guy typing on his laptop in a darkened theater. That said, you should expect spoilers in these pieces, since the goal is the same – to examine the ideas and tropes that make up fiction.

My first Gut Reaction report will be my thoughts on director Quentin Tarantino’s newest film, Django Unchained. So again, warning, if you don’t want spoilers you should stop reading now.


Director: Quentin Tarantino

Writer: Quentin Tarantino

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kerry Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Don Johnson, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, Quentin Tarantino

Thoughts: Considering his well-documented preferences and sensibilities, it’s kind of surprising that it’s taken Quentin Tarantino this long to try his hand at a western. We’ve gotten lots of crime and revenge thrillers from him, we got his World War II epic (I still consider Inglourious Basterds to be his masterpiece), we’ve gotten Blaxploitation and, even though he didn’t direct it himself, we even got a vampire film out of him in From Dusk ‘Till Dawn. It took him nearly 20 years to attempt a western. Fortunately, it was worth the wait.

In Django Unchained we follow a bounty hunter, Dr. King Schultz (the amazingly good Christoph Waltz), who rescues a slave named Django (Jaime Foxx) because he can help him identify the three brothers he has been hired to track down, dead or alive. Along the way he begins to feel a sense of responsibility and friendship for Django, ultimately promising to help him in an elaborate ruse to buy his wife Broomhilde (Kerry Washington) from her owner, the cruel Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

This film has been pushed hard as a Jamie Foxx vehicle, as the film that’s going to garner him another Oscar, as a chance for cinema to right the wrongs of the pre-Civil War south and allow a former slave to get the sort of bloody revenge that Tarantino raised to an art form in Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds. I was surprised, therefore, when I watched the movie and realized that Django isn’t really the protagonist at all. Until the final act, the viewpoint and the main character arc all belong to Christoph Waltz’s Dr. Schultz. Schultz finds Django, takes him in, finds himself changed somewhat by the relationship, and takes a rather bold anti-slavery stance to right the wrong done to Django and Hildy while at the same time trying to protect his own hide. (Waltz, incidentally, gives as great a performance as an anti-hero here as he did as the cold-blooded Nazi in Inglourious Basterds. He sincerely deserves another Oscar nomination.)

In fact, the only thing that really marks this as Django’s story instead of Schultz’s is the fact that (again, last time, SPOILER WARNING) Schultz dies in what appears to be the climactic battle. And in fact, if it actually had been the climax, it would have still been a perfectly suitable and highly satisfying motion picture… Unless you judge satisfaction by the amount of bloody retribution handed out on the screen. Which Tarantino most certainly does. The fight that kills Waltz also kills our villain, DiCaprio’s Calvin Candie, plus several other men before Django surrenders himself to save Hildy. The screen cuts to black and for a moment it seems the movie is over. But then it comes back and we see a sequence of events (a slightly overlong sequence at that) showing Django on the brink of torture, being given a reprieve and sent to work in a mine, outsmarting his transporters (including Tarantino himself sporting the worst Australian accent ever heard in a motion picture) and returning to kill everyone who’s still alive in yet another bloodbath. Satisfying if that’s what you’re there for, and for most of the viewers, we were. It’s Tarantino, we expect lots of gunfights, lots of clever dialogue, and more blood per wound than is technically probably possible for the human body to expel. There’s even a bit where Django gets off a nice shot to kill one of his tormentors that sends her hurtling in a direction that completely defies the laws of physics. As ridiculous as it looked, though, it still got applause in the movie theater, because people aren’t going to a Tarantino movie for strict realism. They’re going to view into the sort of hyper-violent alternate history that it has become clear he’s created through many of his movies.

That said, I think it’s important to note that Django doesn’t really come across as a hero in any sense of the word. Sure, he has a noble cause (saving his wife), and the people he kills are pretty much all bad… but he is driven by revenge pure and simple, not by the nobler motivations of a motion picture hero. Schultz is a bit better – he’s a bounty hunter, yes, but he shows a personal disgust at the slave trade in general and Calvin Candie in particular. He almost blows his cover at one point when he tries to intercede to save the life of a slave who is about to be killed for trying to escape. And what stops him from saving that slave? Django, willing to let another man die rather than risk Candie catching on that Schultz is playing a con game on him. Django, who is forced to play the role of a black slaver (something he specifically says is the “lowest of the low”), takes to the role a little too easily, even seeming to take some twisted pleasure out of berating the slaves in Candie’s jurisdiction. Once again, it’s Schultz who objects and tries to get Django to back off… and Django refuses.

I do think Tarantino deserves full marks for not going the obvious route many filmmakers would have taken with this film of “white=bad, black=good.” Real life is far more complex and so is this movie. We’ve got the vile Calvin Candie and the pre-KKK lynch mob led by plantation owner Big Daddy (Don Johnson in a small but very funny role), but we also have Dr. Schultz, who is so disgusted by the slaver that he takes a chance to kill Candie even when all he has to do to walk away safe is shake the man’s hand… he can’t do it. Broomhilde comes across as angelic, as near-perfect, but on the flipside we have Samuel L. Jackson’s Steven, a house slave who has very much sided with the Candie family against the rest of the people in bondage. He’s also entertaining, but also despicable. In the screening we attended, people actually were shouting for his death… but you could tell they were having a good time doing it.

Tarantino takes lot from the spaghetti westerns of his youth, but as always maintains the incredible level of violence that’s become his trademark. Django himself is thematically related to a series of other Django films from the time period – most of which were only loosely related to each other. The most unexpected influence comes from Schultz, who takes the name of Django’s wife – “Broomhilde” – as a sign. He tells Django (and by extension the audience) an abbreviated version of the Norse legend of Brunhilde and Siegfried, and from there it becomes very clear that Django Unchained is really a loose adaptation of this part of the Ring of the Nibelung, in Western drag. There’s no attempt to disguise it, and in fact, any attempt to do so would probably feel disingenuous.

It’s a good movie… a very good movie, in fact. It’s not like most westerns and it’s not really what I expected when I sat down to watch it. It very much has the distinct flavor of a Tarantino film, though, and if that’s what you’re looking for, you’re looking in the right place.