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What I Watched In… March 2015

Favorite of the Month: Birdman (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Birdman (2014)

I’m a few days late with this list, but I’m gonna go ahead and play my “Sorry, I was hospitalized” card. I’m home now, and trying to get myself back to normal. So…

In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written or talked about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Nick Offerman: American Ham (2014), B-
2. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs (2009), B+
3. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008), B-
4. Parallels (2014), B
5. 42 (2013), A-
6. 88 (2015), D
7. The Last Days (2013), B+
8. The Kentucky Fried Movie (1977), D
9. Big Hero Six (2014), A
10. Love Hotel (2014), C
11. Harmontown (2014), B
12. Batman: Assault on Arkham (2014), B
13. Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (2015), B+
14. Mud (2012), B
15. It’s Such a Beautiful Day (2012), A-
16. Back Issues (2014), C
17. Frankenstein’s Castle of Freaks (1974), D; Cinematic Titanic Riff, B
18. Open Windows (2014), B+
19. Birdman (2014), A
20. The Usual Suspects (1995), B
21. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989), A-
22. Last Action Hero (1993), B-
23. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), B
24. 300: Rise of an Empire (2014), C
25. The ABCs of Death 2 (2014), B-
26. V/H/S: Viral (2014), C
27. To Be or Not to Be (1983), B+
28. European Vacation (1985), B
29. Deep Impact (1998), B+

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What I Watched In… June 2014

Favorite of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

Favorite of the Month: Much Ado About Nothing (2012)

First off, allow me to apologize for the lack of activity here lately. I know I promised to start hitting you guys with more regular reviews, but June didn’t allow me a lot of time for writing of any kind because — and this is the part I make no apologizes for — I got married. It’s been a great month, but a busy one. The odd thing is, I did manage to squeeze in a healthy number of movies, while simultaneously having virtually no time to DO anything with them.

Anyway, back to the usual stuff. In the interest of full disclosure (and to generate a little content here) I thought I’d present a regular tally of what movies I managed to see in the previous month. Some of them I’ve written about, most of them I haven’t. This list includes movies I saw for the first time, movies I’ve seen a thousand times, movies I saw in the theater, movies I watched at home, direct-to-DVD, made-for-TV and anything else that qualifies as a movie. I also choose my favorite of the month among those movies I saw for the first time, marked in red. Feel free to discuss or ask about any of them!

1. Jaws (1975), A
2. Pulp Fiction (1994), B+
3.  The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953), B
4. Cool as Ice (1991), F; Rifftrax Riff, B+
5. G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013), C+
6. The Institute (2013), B-
7. Timecrimes (2007), A-
8. Curious George (2006), B
9. Knights of Badassdom (2013), B+
10. Identity Thief (2013), C
11. American Psycho (2000), B-
12. The Adventures of the American Rabbit (1986), B-
13. Hercules (1958), D+; MST3K Riff, B
14. From Dusk Till Dawn (1996), B
15. From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999), C
16. From Dusk Till Dawn 3: The Hangman’s Daughter (1999), B-
17. Full Tilt Boogie (1997), B-
18. Killers From Space (1954), D; Film Crew Riff, B
19. Much Ado About Nothing (2012), A-
20. High Anxiety (1977), B
21. The Aristocats (1970), C+
22. It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), B+
23. The Matrix (1999), A
24. Armageddon (1998), B-
25. Frozen (2013), A
26. How to Train Your Dragon (2010), B+
27. You’re Next (2013), C+
28. Maleficent (2014), B-
29. Planet of Dinosaurs (1977), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
30. The Wolverine (2013), B-
31. The LEGO Movie (2014), A
32. The Conjuring (2013), C-
33. Monsters University (2013), B+
34. The Blue Umbrella (2013), A

At the Movies Episode 40: The LEGO Movie

The LEGO MovieI’ve got to be honest, gang — my movie watching this month has slowed to a crawl. Blame the Olympics. I’m a huge Olympic geek, so when those are going on, I watch almost nothing else.

I did, however, manage to take in The LEGO Movie last night, and I did a mini podcast to review it. Check it out!

At the Movies Episode 40: The LEGO Movie.

Scrooge Month Day 19: Jim Carrey in A CHRISTMAS CAROL (2009)

Christmas Carol 2009Director: Robert Zemeckis

Writer: Robert Zemeckis, based on the novel by Charles Dickens

Cast: Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Cary Elwes, Robin Wright, Daryl Sabara, Bob Hoskins, Molly Quinn, Fay Masterson, Fionnula Flanagan

Notes: This was the third film from director Robert Zemeckis in which he used his motion capture process to animate in 3D, following The Polar Express and Beowulf and preceding Mars Needs Moms, which flopped so painfully that his animation study was shut down. Although a fairly straightforward retelling of the story, he employs a lot of the motion capture tricks he’d used in previous films, such as using the same actor to play different characters opposite himself or at various ages. Jim Carrey, for example, plays Scrooge at every stage of his life, as well as all three of the Ghosts, using the logic that the ghosts are extensions of Scrooge’s own soul. Okay, I can buy that. Gary Oldman, meanwhile, plays both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim and – for some reason – Marley, while Robin Wright plays both Scrooge’s sister Fan and the love of his life, Belle, which has some disturbingly Freudian implications.

Thoughts: Once there was a little boy named Robert Zemeckis. Robert made great movies in a far-off land called the 1980s, but as the 21st century began, he fell in love with a pretty girl named “Motion Capture CGI.” They had four children together before they broke up, and of the four, this is probably the best.

Part of it, let’s be honest, is the source material. A Christmas Carol is by far more classic than Zemeickis’s first or last motion capture films, and while Beowulf is a classic in its own right, he took too many liberties with that one (Grendel’s mom is hot? That’s sick.) for it to really rank. Here, though, he takes a legendary tale and gives it a pretty decent polish that makes it worth revisiting at this time of year.

One of the interesting things that Zemeickis pulls off is creating characters recognizable as the actors that play them while still giving them enough of a twist to work as animated figures. Carrey is clearly visible inside Scrooge, but his elongated nose and chin would look silly in real life. Gary Oldman can be squished down to play a short little Bob Cratchit, Colin Firth can be puffed up a bit so Fred looks comfortably plump. Carrey can also be seen in each of the three ghosts. It’s an odd choice, to have him portray the three of them, and I’m not entirely convinced of the point Zemeckis was trying to make, but Carrey’s performances as the ghosts are just fine. Christmas Past is light and airy, Christmas Present is enormous and bombastic. Christmas Yet to Come… well, he’s barely there, and that’s a good thing.

This version is also a good bit scarier than many of them, and at the same time, more in keeping with the original Dickens. Marley’s head wrapping – which was actually a tradition at the time to keep a corpse’s mouth from hanging open – comes loose, and his jaw opens up to a horrific degree. As he howls at Scrooge his mouth rattles around like something out of a zombie movie. Christmas Present doesn’t just age, as he often does, he withers away until there’s nothing left but a skeleton, its teeth chattering with maniacal laughter. Then there’s Christmas Yet to Come, who shows up initially just as a shadow – Scrooge’s shadow, in fact, in a warped and twisted form. We don’t really see much of a physical form for him at all, in fact, which is terribly effective. This is about as scary a version of A Christmas Carol as I’ve ever seen.

The scenes with the three ghosts are pretty by-the-book, but done well. In fact, one of the few times where Zemeckis’s love affair with his computer (more on that later) really works is when Scrooge is facing Christmas Present. Rather than teleporting him to the other locations, as he usually does, he turns the floor in Scrooge’s house transparent and we watch as they “fly” from one place to another. The visuals here – throughout the Christmas Present sequence, really – are absolutely top-notch, and are an example of what Zemeckis can do with his CGI at its best.

There are a lot of good things about this movie, but Robert Zemeckis brings the same problems to this as he did with all of his motion-capture films. First, and most problematic, the characters are largely expressionless. He can make a character move like a human, but he hasn’t mastered the skill of putting feeling into their eyes, which makes them seem somewhat stiff and lifeless. It’s the classic Uncanny Valley problem writ large.

What’s more, Zemeckis was so in love with the technology that he often did things just because it was possible that didn’t really add anything to the story. There’s an extended sequence where Scrooge – for absolutely no reason – is shrunk to the size of a mouse and whips around London. It reminds me of the scene from The Polar Express in which a train ticket is taken by the wind and blown around. It looks good, but ultimately, it’s a meaningless scene that doesn’t go anywhere or do anything. In both instances, I felt like I was watching the film of one of those motion simulator amusement park rides, which is pretty dull when you’re in a stationary seat. Zemeckis does similar things several times throughout the film, to the point where it starts to get actually obnoxious when you sense the first few seconds of the next such sequence.

It’s actually a shame that he never quite got a handle on how best to use this sort of technology, because when it works it works well. But like George Lucas dropping in added effects to the Star Wars special editions, Zemeckis got so excited that he could do certain things that he never stopped to think about whether they should be done. The result is like going to an industrial sawmill to cut a single two-by-four in half. It’ll work, but it’s overkill, and there are much better ways to do the same thing.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com 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!

Scrooge Month Day 15: ??? in A CHRISTMAS CAROL: SCROOGE’S GHOSTLY TALE (2006)

Christmas Carol-Scrooges Ghostly Tale 2006Director: Ric Machin

Writer: Sean Catherine Derek, Charles Dickens

Cast: Tim Bentink, Brian Bowles, Theresa Gallagher, Adam Rhys Dee, Keith Wickham, Jo Wyatt  

Notes: I’m trying to figure out where, exactly, I got this version of A Christmas Carol. I’m pretty sure it was on sale at Half-Price Books for a few dollars, and I got it because I’ve got a weird obsession with such things. Also, the DVD case has a liquid pouch with glittery “snow” in it, and I’m a sucker for such things. Anyway, this animated version of the story recasts the Dickens characters: the Scrooge family are skunks, the Cratchits are rabbits, and Marley is a Cricket. Past, Present and Future are a stork, a kangaroo, and a walrus, respectively. There are no voice actors credited for this movie either on IMDB or Wikipedia, which I’ve never seen before, and makes me wonder how exactly this short (48 minute) adaptation happened other than spontaneous combustion.  There are credits at the end (which is where the above cast list came from), but the film doesn’t bother to tell you who provided each voice, so I can’t even help you there. One of the above people played Scrooge. I’m betting on Theresa Gallagher.

Thoughts: Another animated version of Dickens, this one with weak computer animation rather than weak traditional animation, it’s hard to qualify the film. This is a post-Pixar world, friends. This came out the same year as Cars and Monster House, but the quality of the animation isn’t even as sharp as that of Pixar’s earliest efforts. The animation is in computerized 3d, but the coloring is flat, like it’s trying to mimic a hand-drawn effect.  I almost want to believe this was somebody’s student animation class project (made because you don’t have to pay for the rights to Dickens) that somehow got a DVD release.

We have a narrator and the characters are familiar, but the Dickens dialogue is thrown out the window immediately. Instead we’ve got super-greedy Scrooge berating Bob Cratchit over a missing farthing he’s too blind to realize is sitting on his own forehead until Fred arrives and points it out to him. The plot – for now at least – follows Dickens fairly closely. Scrooge is grouchy to Cratchit and grouchy to Fred and even blames his food for upsetting his stomach when Marley shows up. Speaking of Marley, the flaming cricket that plays the part shows even less animation than the rest of the cast. When he flails about on his chain, it looks like a toy on the end of a stick being waved around both willy and nilly.

When Christmas Past shows up, it appears first as Scrooge’s pillow, which scares the crap out of him. Cute enough. When she turns into a stork, though, she drops a joke about “pillow talk” that almost made me choke to death on the gingerbread M&M I was eating – not because it was funny, but because the filmmakers included such a (relatively) adult joke in the middle of a cartoon that, until now, seemed to be crafted to cater specifically to the 3-to-3 ½ year old demographic. Christmas Past whisks Scrooge to the past, where he sees himself and Sister Fan making the world’s ugliest snowman.

This time, for the first time in any version of the film, we see baby Fred. He’s not the cause of Fan’s death, but he is the cause of Scrooge’s isolation. Fan had promised Scrooge he could leave school and live with her, but with the baby there’s just no room for him. Young Scrooge storms out, not hearing Fan tell her baby how much she loves and misses her brother. Old Scrooge hears it, of course, but the whole thing rings pretty hollow, seeing as how these computer animated figures move at about the speed of a radio controlled car with a missing wheel. She could have caught up with him pretty easily.

Christmas Present hops onto the scene, a kangaroo, with an Australian accent because duh. At the Cratchit house we meet Tiny Tim, who isn’t even sick in this version. He still makes Scrooge feel like kind of a jerk, though, as he expresses a child’s love for the old miser.

Christmas Future, the walrus, is surprisingly funny. He sparks with red lightning and he has a broken tusk that looks like it’s been lashed together with a leather strap. And as he talks (yep, this one talks), his big jowls flap around over the tusks. His is actually the best animation in the entire film.

This is when the film goes off the Dickensian rails. Instead of dying, we see that Tiny Tim has grown up into an old, bitter codger just like Scrooge. This doesn’t seem to make any sense at all; there’s no motivation that seems in place to push Tim down that particular path. Then the movie actually makes a funny point when it gets to Scrooge’s death. In this version, Scrooge learns that he’s been crushed to death under the weight of his own gold. It’s goofy and ridiculous, and it actually entertains me for about five seconds before the character pushes it too far and changes the subtext into text by announcing Scrooge was killed by his own greed. You know. In case anybody didn’t get that.

So at the end, the Walrus of Christmas Future tells Scrooge to open his heart and he wakes up back in his own bed, and I realize with utter shock that there are still 15 minutes left in this movie. Considering how quickly everything has been rushed through, what could they possibly have to fill up that gargantuan amount of time?

Oh god. A musical number.

Scrooge starts to dance and sing about dancing and singing, informing everybody he meets that he won’t need another chance, which is swell, but the movie seems to have forgotten one of the primary rules of musicals. Namely, you need to have a musical number before the final reel of the film, or else it feels like it comes out of nowhere. Because it does.

Then there’s the last scene, which again departs from Dickens in a big way, as Marley reappears and tells Scrooge that he’s been set free from his eternal torment. Somehow, his concern for Scrooge has redeemed Marley as well. I have to admit, as deviancies from the classic go, I’m… I’m kind of okay with this one. I mean, it does somewhat undercut the notion that Scrooge had to change before it was too late, because evidently it’s never too late in this universe, but that’s not necessarily the worst message to take away from a story like this.

This isn’t a good version of A Christmas Carol, don’t get me wrong. The animation is terrible, the dialogue is weak and the song at the end is guaranteed to make you want to plunge a stake of holly through each eardrum. That said, it’s not the worst version I’ve watched either.

The first Reel to Reel study, Mutants, Monsters and Madmen, is now available as a $2.99 eBook in the Amazon Kindle store and Smashwords.com 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!

2 in 1 Showcase at the Movies: Monster-Sized Double Feature

showcase logo full black2For those of you who listen to the podcasts, I reviewed a pair of movies in this week’s episode of my show. If you feel like listening to me ramble a bit about Pacific Rim and Monsters University, here’s a link!

(If you dig comic books, I also briefly talk about the new issues of Astro City and Quantum and Woody.)
2 in 1 Showcase At the Movies #36: Monster-Sized Double Feature

The Christmas Special Day 25: Prep and Landing (2009)

prep_postertDirectors: Stevie Wermers & Kevin Deters

Writers: Kevin Deters, Stevie Wermers & Chris Williams

Cast: Dave Foley, Sarah Chalke, Mason Vale Cotton, David DeLuise, Derek Richardson, William Morgan Sheppard, Nathan Greno

Plot: Before “The Big Guy” (William Morgan Sheppard) can make his rounds, it’s up to the Prep and Landing Elves to scout ahead and make sure your house is ready: children nestled in their beds, no creatures stirring, and so forth. For over 200 years Wayne (Dave Foley) has been a Prep and Landing elf, but this year he’s certain he’ll get promoted to Head of the Naughty List. He’s shattered when North Pole Christmas Eve Command Center Coordinator Magee (Sarah Chalke) tells him he’s been passed over in favor of his partner, an elf he helped to train. As if that wasn’t bad enough, he’s being given a new rookie, Lanny (Derek Richardson), an idealistic young elf who thinks he’s landed the “most tinsel” job in the world. Broken, on Christmas Eve Wayne starts to sleepwalk through his job, bumbling and eventually getting caught by a little boy named Timmy (Mason Vale Cotton). Lanny manages to put Timmy back to sleep, but a massive snowstorm is raging, and as Wayne has slacked off his work, Magee is left with no choice but to declare a “Figgy Pudding” situation — they’re going to have to skip Timmy’s house. Realizing the depths of his mistake, Wayne snaps Lanny into action, calling the boss back and transforming an inflatable snowglobe into a beacon to guide him in for a landing. Christmas is saved, but Wayne’s career may be over. The next day, the Big Guy calls him into his office. Wayne is ready to accept his punishment, asking only that the boss assign Lanny a good partner to replace him. But to his surprise, the Big Guy tells him he understands… everyone winds up on the naughty list once in a while, but he gave him Lanny precisely because he’s so god at his job. When Wayne leaves the office, he tells the waiting Lanny he was offered a promotion, to head of the Nice List, but he turned it down. He’s decided he’s more of a Prep and Landing guy.

Thoughts: One special is not enough to declare it a new Golden Age of Christmas Specials, but if Disney keeps turning out things like this – and starts inspiring other studios to do the same, we’ll have plenty to choose from very soon.

Disney really pulled out all the stops for this, with animation as crisp and energetic as anything they would put on the big screen, characters just as well-developed and entertaining, and even a musical score by Michael Giacchino. If they had showed this before The Princess and the Frog, not a single moviegoer would have been disappointed.

Prep and Landing is one of those cartoons that genuinely does everything right, starting with the characters and cast. Wayne and Lanny make for a fine odd couple, with Dave Foley bringing in the sort of exasperated worker attitude that worked for him on Newsradio and Derek Richardson matching it with an enthusiasm that would be obnoxious if it weren’t so sincere. Sarah Chalke’s Magee has a sort of frantic, manic energy that perfectly suits the character of the woman who’s doing the real legwork of running the north pole operation, and her interaction with her voiceless assistant, Tiny, make for a constant string of sight gags that still make me laugh after watching this a half-dozen times. I didn’t mention Santa’s reindeer Dasher and Dancer (Nathan Greno and David DeLuise) during the synopsis because they really don’t add anything to the plot. However, they bring out some fantastic comedic moments, adding to the conceit that Santa’s operation is treated like a cross between NASA and a military enterprise. The two of them put on the persona of hardcore, Top Gun-style pilots, while Magee runs things like she’s in charge of Mission Control and we’re about launch for outer space.

The characters, of course, play these things all perfectly straight. There’s no winking at the camera, no tongue-in-cheek moments where you get the impression the characters know they’re in a Christmas special. Instead, every beat of the story comes across like we’re watching a vital, life-and-death situation, even as Wayne’s depression sends him into mocking the Big Guy and his partner and Christmas in general (even shutting off a TV presentation of Mickey’s Christmas Carol – a nice touch).

It’s also nice to see the Elves elevated into stars for once. Most Christmas specials focus on Santa or one of his ancillary associates – Rudolph, Frosty, even Mrs. Claus. Until now, any special or movie that has shown the Elves in any large part has kept them in supporting roles. The only exception I can think of is the 2003 film Elf, and even that is less about the Elves themselves ad instead focuses on a goober who happens to think he’s an elf… not exactly the same thing. This is the first series I can think of that takes real Elves and shows us what they can really do, making them our heroes. It’s telling that “the Big Guy” is rarely mentioned by name, that his face never actually appears on-screen. Sure, we all know it’s Santa, but by keeping our distance from him it’s easier to look at Wayne and Lanny as our stars instead of worrying about what the boss is up to on this particular Christmas Eve.

This special has become the start of a lucrative franchise for the Disney folks. After winning a boatload of awards, they came back in 2010 with a seven-minute short (Operation Secret Santa) and, in 2011, another half-hour (Naughty Vs. Nice). Both of these have expanded the world of Prep and Landing, introducing more characters, more parts of the overall operation, and more worlds to explore with our favorite Elves. The characters even appeared in an eight-page Marvel Comic (Disney being Marvel’s parent company), in which Wayne and Lanny prep the Avengers’s headquarters for Santa’s arrival. Point is, these guys are becoming legitimate stars in their own right.

Unfortunately, last I heard a third full-length special was put on hold after Naughty Vs. Nice didn’t quite grab the ratings bonanza the first film did. But with both specials being shown all over ABC and ABC Family, and the DVD and Blu-Ray now available, there’s always hope. I love Wayne and Lanny, I love Magee and Tiny, I love the whole world of these gutsy little Elves, and I want to go back there again.

The Christmas Special Day 24: Shrek the Halls (2007)

shrek-the-hallsDirector: Gary Trousdale

Writers: Gary Trousdale, Sean Bishop, Theresa Cullen, Bill Riling

Cast: Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, Antonio Banderas, Cody Cameron, Susan Fitzer, Christopher Knights,  Gary Trousdale, Conrad Vernon, Aron Warner, Marissa Jaret Winokur

Plot: With only 159 days left until Christmas, Donkey (Eddie Murphy) begins pestering his friend Shrek (Mike Myers) to begin the preparations. Over the next few months, Donkey gets more and more insistent and Shrek more and more resistant, until it’s finally December 23 and he realizes for the first time his wife, Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz), and their triplets are looking forward to their first Christmas as a family. Not wanting to let her down, Shrek sets out for town to figure out how to “make a Christmas.” He winds up with a copy of a self-help book, Christmas For Village Idiots, that promises to help him one step at a time make the holiday Fiona deserves.

The next day, Christmas Eve, Fiona wakes up to find Shrek decorating their house for Christmas. Although she’s happily surprised, Donkey shows up to drop off a Christmas card and criticizes the decorating job. Fiona and the babies pitch in, and by dark Shrek is ready to sit down and tell his kids the Christmas story, but he’s interrupted when Donkey bursts in along with all of their friends. Puss in Boots (Antonio Banderas) entertains the kids while the others race around putting up more and more decorations, ruin supper and – in the case of the Gingerbread Man (Conrad Vernon) – make a pass at the angel-shaped Christmas Cookies. Although Shrek tries to hide from the chaos, Fiona lures him back, but things just get worse. He tries to get himself back into the spirit by telling his kids his Christmas story, but Donkey again steals the spotlight with an insane poem about a Christmas parade. Puss in Boots gets into the act with his tale of “Santa Claws,” and the Gingerbread Man jumps in with a story that’s really more appropriate for Halloween. A fight ensues and Shrek, while trying to hide his book, accidentally starts a chaotic chain reaction that ruins the party and sets both himself and the Christmas tree on fire. Boiling with rage, he throws Donkey and the rest out of his house. Fiona is upset that he threw out their friends, and sets out to find them while Shrek complains about how they ruined “his” Christmas. He catches up to them and tries a halfhearted apology, finally admitting that ogres don’t celebrate Christmas, and he has no idea what he’s doing. Everyone apologizes to each other and the odd little family returns to Shrek’s home to settle in for the night. Before lights out, Shrek tries once more to tell his Christmas story: a tale of a Santa Claus making his visit to an ogre home. As he finishes, they hear laughter in the air and rush outside to see Santa Claus flying across the moon.

Thoughts: My thoughts about Dreamworks Pictures Shrek franchise are fairly simple: I thought the first one was entertaining. As for the rest, my grandma always said if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all. But even the worst franchise can sometimes turn out a charming Christmas story, so when Shrek the Halls made its network TV debut, I gave it a chance, and I rather liked it.

In truth, it suffers from many of the problems that plague Dreamworks Animation in general – too many topical jokes and current songs that hurt the special’s ability to become a real timeless classic. There’s a reason Rankin and Bass didn’t throw the Beatles into their specials… well, they also probably couldn’t afford them, but you see my point. In truth, this and oversaturation is one of the reasons Dreamworks will never quite reach the heights of a Pixar or Disney Animation Studio – they’re so focused on making a franchise that’s current and modern and now that the next generation of children will find themselves tuning out to the constant reminders of the world their parents grew up in. To put it another way, my two-year-old niece loves every Toy Story movie (and, in fact, everything Pixar has produced). I find it really hard to believe that she’ll latch on to Shrek or Kung-Fu Panda in the same way, even once she gets a little older and enters into the sphere of the intended demographic. They also rush out sequels, cranking out cookie-cutter cartoons that rarely, if ever, match the original, rather than allowing the story to dictate the future of the characters. Finally, there’s an emphasis on gross-out humor (such as the Gingerbread Man throwing up a chocolate kiss and the Donkey eating it) that shuts out older viewers… something else Pixar doesn’t feel the need to succumb to.

But don’t get the impression that I didn’t like this cartoon – I did. The animation itself is top-notch, and a lot of the characters and design are very imaginative… the giant Waffle Santa Claus, for instance. Puss in Boots is a great character, especially if you’re a cat owner and recognize how easily he slips from the persona of the suave Latin lover into a typical feline, which leaves him embarrassed.

Like any good Christmas special, the true test comes in when the hero learns his lesson at the end. Shrek has an interesting character arc here – he goes from being a complete Scrooge to suddenly wanting desperately to create a good Christmas for his family. From there he bumbles, he misunderstands the meaning of Christmas, he learns it, and then gets it all right. This time around, rather than giving a religious message or a message about the virtue in giving and sacrifice (all of which are well and good, by the way), the message is one of family. You may fight and struggle and drive each other crazy, but there’s a reason you stick around people besides blood. It’s a nice message about love and the truth about what a real family is, and it’s one even the children will no doubt be able to grasp.

Throughout most of the 90s and early 2000s, there was a dearth of new televised Christmas specials, which is why this particular Reel to Reel project has been so heavily weighted with films from the 60s through the 80s. (In a way, it’s the exact opposite of the problem I had with Lunatics and Laughter.) But in recent years, Dreamworks and Disney both have stepped up and started to change that. Have a wonderful Christmas Eve, my friends, and come back tomorrow for the finale of The Christmas Special with my favorite TV Christmas Special to premiere since I was a child.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 17: Slither (2006)

slitherDirector: James Gunn

Writer: James Gunn

Cast: Nathan Fillion, Elizabeth Banks, Michael Rooker, Don Thompson, Gregg Henry, Tania Saulnier, Haig Sutherland, Jennifer Copping, Brenda James, Jenna Fisher, Lloyd Kaufman

Plot: Thesmall town of Wheelsy, South Carolina is in danger. A meteor has fallen to Earth. Local car dealer Grant Grant (Michael Rooker)’s relationship with his wife Starla (Elizabeth Banks) hasn’t been great lately, and he’s in the woods with a woman he picked up in a bar (Brenda James, as Brenda) when they come upon the meteor. A parasite infests Grant’s body, and the next day, he begins stocking up on meat. Starla returns home to find a lock on the basement. Grant is changing – odd sores appearing on his body, and intense discomfort in his abdomen. A pair of fleshy tendrils sprout from his chest and almost reach for Starla, but he makes up an excuse about leaving something at work and flees. He goes to Brenda’s home and abducts her.

Starla, meanwhile, reconnects with Sheriff Bill Pardy (Nathan Fillion), a childhood sweetheart who never stopped carrying a torch for her. At home she finds Grant covered in bumps and sores. He claims it’s just a bee sting and the doctor has already treated him. She calls the doctor the next day, though, and he denies having seen Grant. Grant, meanwhile, has chained Brenda in a barn in the woods, and is bringing her huge bags of meat. Her stomach has become grotesquely distended, and she is ravenous. Bill and his deputy Wally (Don Thompson) pay Starla a visit. Brenda has been reported missing, and the neighbors saw Grant enter her house. Scared, Starla breaks the lock off the basement door to find a grotesque, flyblown nest full of animal corpses. Grant attacks her, but Bill and the cops return just in time to see his mutated form as he runs away.

Three days later Mayor Jack MacReady (Gregg Henry) is up in arms. Although he doesn’t believe reports that Grant has turned into a monster, he does believe he’s behind Brenda’s kidnapping and the rash of animal slayings that has sent the town into a frenzy. Bill rounds up a posse to stake out the next farm in Grant’s attack pattern, and Starla asks to come with him. Grant has mutated further, turning into a horrible, fleshy mass covered with tentacles, and the horrified police watch as he slays and consumes one of the farmer’s cows. Starla tries to reason with him, but when a deputy tries to play hardball, Grant kills the man and flees into the woods. They track him to the barn and find Brenda, now transformed into an enormous, pulsating blob. She explodes into a torrent of sluglike creatures that attack the cops, slithering into their mouths. Billy, Starla and a few others escape by covering their mouths until the slugs are gone, but most of the cops are down – alive, but comatose. The slugs converge on the farmhouse, where one attacks the farmer’s daughter Kylie (Tania Saulnier). Although it makes it into her mouth, she digs her fingernails in and yanks it out – but not before she has visions of its horrific alien homeworld. When she stumbles from the bathroom, she finds her parents and sisters have been taken by the hundreds of slugs overwhelming the house. She locks herself in her father’s truck as the slugs swarm over it.

Back at the barn Bill calls for help and tries to get the fallen cops outside. Wally wakes up and begins talking to Starla, saying he’s sorry and that he didn’t tell her because he was afraid she wouldn’t love him anymore. As the rest of the posse stands, it becomes clear Grant’s mind is controlling them all. Starla shoot Wally and rest of the Grant-zombies give chase. Back at the truck, the slugs have slithered away, but Kylie’s blood-soaked family is now trying to get to her. Bill saves her, but a horde of zombiefied people from nearby homes attack. Starla and MacReady run by, pursued by the zombies, and Starla slays another. The four survivors climb into Bill’s car and flee, while the zombies they leave behind cry Starla’s name.

Kylie explains what she saw when the slug attacked her – a creature that moves from planet to planet, consuming everything and turning what it doesn’t eat into part of its hive-mind. Bill calls his dispatch officer Shelby (Jenna Fischer) and tells her to call the CDC, but the slugs burst into the office before she has a chance. Instead, Shelby sends a zombie in a van to collide with Bill’s car. A horde of the zombies kidnap Starla. Bill and Kylie hide while one of the zombies gets MacReady. The zombies bring Starla and MacReady back to Grant’s house, and the thing that used to be Grant puts on some romantic music for a night at home with the wife. She approaches him as he continues to absorb the zombies into his own mass. She finds him in a twisted shrine to their marriage, surrounded by pictures of the two of them. She attacks as Bill and Kylie arrive, but Bill misses with his grenade. The creature stabs Bill, but he manages to get a tentacle jammed into a propane tank. Starla grabs Bill’s gun and shoots Grant, igniting the gas. As he dies, everyone taken by the slugs collapses. Bill, Starla and Kylie stumble out into the rising sun, surrounded by the bodies of the zombies, and begin to go down the road, planning to walk to the hospital in the next town.

Thoughts: If Eight Legged Freaks was a love letter to 50s-era giant animal monster movies, Slither is a tribute to that time period’s other great fear: alien zombies. Of course, the zombies of that time aren’t zombies as we know them today (that was largely a creation of George Romero in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – virtually all zombie movies since have taken their cues from Romero). At the time, pretty much anything that turned ordinary people into mindless beasts or, even better, part of an alien hive-mind, could qualify. Slither fits in well with that brand of horror film.

It’s most certainly a Type-A horror/comedy, though. In terms of sheer gore, this movie far outstrips anything we’ve yet watched in this project. James Gunn (writer of the Scooby Doo films and the Dawn of the Dead remake, here making his directorial debut) is a product of Troma Studios, and it shows with horrific monster designs, highly realistic animals, and garbage bags full of blood and offal. Gunn pays his dividends to his alma mater in this movie. Not only is the story like something ripped right from a Troma film (albeit with a less campy tone and much better production values), but he works in a cameo by Lloyd Kaufman as a town drunk and even throws in a clip from The Toxic Avenger on Brenda’s TV screen. That’s only the obvious stuff, though. Less obvious, but still undeniably Tromantic, are some of the monster scenes. When Grant infects Brenda, for instance, the scene is surprisingly brutal, but shot in many ways like a sex scene, right down to the rhythmic gyrations one would expect at such a moment. It’s the sort of thing that’s either wildly funny or horribly disturbing depending on how you want to look at it. The part where Bill grapples with a zombie deer? Well, that’s just funny any way you cut it.

The true expression of how warped Gunn’s sensibilities are (and I mean this as a compliment) is the finale. Grant – now a truly hideous creature – has Starla trapped in the house while dozens of zombies walk around calling her name and pounding on the walls, all to the dulcet tones of Air Supply’s “Every Woman in the World.” The disconnect between the music and what we’re watching on the screen is jolting, funny, and terrifying all at the same time. There’s a bit of genius there too – when Starla begins talking to Grant about how long he’s been alone, it takes you just a moment to realize she’s not really talking to him, she’s talking to the alien. It’s really well-scripted and well-acted, and all the blood and gore is just a bonus.

Grant Grant actually manages to transcend his stereotype a bit. He’s the big lummox, the sort of guy you expect to turn into the threat in these situations, but it’s worth noting that before the alien takes over his body he actually turns down the chance to cheat on his wife. That’s not something most characters of his type would do. Even after the parasite takes him, we see him try to resist. There’s real pain in his eyes when Starla looks at him covered in the bumps and sores, when he realizes she’s starting to see the monster inside him. He even protects Starla when the monster wants to go after her in the shower, and although he quickly finds an alternate victim, it’s hard to argue that his love for his wife isn’t genuine.

If anyone fits into the dumb beefcake archetype, it’s Mayor MacReady (a nice nod to another of Gunn’s obvious influences, John Carpenter’s The Thing). He’s rude, crass, and uses his obnoxious personality to cover a streak of cowardice. When Bill shoots him in the head after his transformation, it’s the sort of horror movie kill that makes the audience cheer with approval. He does, however, get some of the film’s best lines – lots of tasteless jokes and panicked exclamations (he’s never seen anything like this, and he watches Animal Planet all the time).

Fans of Firefly have long known Nathan Fillion has leading man quality, and this film helps get that across. He’s got a heroic, self-sacrificing nature, not quite as bold or bombastic as the characters he usually plays. When he drops a one-liner (and he does, frequently), it’s more likely to be dry and a little self-deprecating than any kind of braggadocio. The scene in the car, when he nervously tries to explain to Starla how he’s responsible for stopping up his mother’s toilet and then gets into an argument with MacReady over the definition of “Martian,” is one of the best bits of writing I’ve seen in one of these movies.

Besides MacReady’s name, Gunn continues the now well-worn tradition of peppering the film with references to other horror stories. The scene where the slug attacks Kylie in the bathtub is very reminiscent of Freddy Krueger’s attack on Nancy in the first Friday the 13th for instance, with other scenes calling to mind great bits from Night of the Living Dead, Return of the Living Dead, and dozens of other films. Even Kylie’s little sisters are caught reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books before they turn into monsters themselves.

Like Eight Legged Freaks, the downfall of this movie comes in the CGI. Four years later than the other film, the technology has improved. Individual slugs actually look fairly convincing. But when you see an entire swarm of the slugs, the visuals start to break down. The worst bit is actually the first time you’re sure you’re looking at computer effects, when Brenda explodes and the slugs rush out in a wave. It looks very much like a 90s video game at that point. Although the rest of the movie looks better, that one moment tends to taint your perception.

Both Gunn and Fillion have gone on to bigger projects in years past, with it recently announced that Gunn would helm Marvel Studios’ upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Although we probably can’t expect the level of guts and gore he gave us in Slither, this movie really shows without a doubt that he’s got a powerful, unique visual style and a good eye for creatures and practical effects. If he can polish off the CGI, that movie is going to look fantastic. Hopefully though, he won’t stay in that relatively safe realm of sci-fi for too long, because this movie proves very neatly he’s got great chops for horror.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 14: Eight-Legged Freaks (2002)

EightDirector: Ellory Elkayem

Writers: Ellory Elkayem, Randy Kornfield, Jesse Alexander

Cast: David Arquette, Kari Wuhrer, Scott Terra, Scarlett Johansson, Doug E. Doug, Rick Overton, Leon Rippy, Matt Czuchry, Tom Noonan, Eileen Ryan

Plot: A highway accident causes a barrel of toxic waste to spill into a reservoir in the little town of Prosperity, Arizona, where the chemicals spread to a spider farm. The owner, Joshua (Tom Noonan) collects contaminated crickets to feed his beasts. A boy named Mike (Scott Terra) stops by for a visit, and Joshua shows him the various species of arachnid in his collection. After Mike leaves, Joshua notices some of his spiders have gotten loose. They suddenly attack and destroy him.

A week later, Chris McCormick (David Arquette) comes back to Prosperity after a decade away. His father owned the town mines, and he’s come home to stand against the mayor who wants to sell all the town property and relocate. Meanwhile Mike’s mother, Sheriff Sam Stroud (Kari Wuhrer), has uncovered the toxic waste barrel. On her way home, she pulls over a group of teenagers on dirt bikes, including her daughter Ashley (Scarlett Johanssen). She takes her home, warning her about her boyfriend Brett (Matt Czuchry), who also happens to be the mayor’s stepson.

At a town meeting Mayor Wade (Tom Rippy) tries to convince the people to sell their property to a company that wants to use their empty mines (to dump waste, but he leaves that part out). Chris insists his father saw a lode of gold in the mine before he died, and punches Wade, who orders Sam to arrest him. Sam, who shares a history with Chris, lets him go.  His aunt Gladys (Eileen Ryan) mentions that Sam is divorced now, and urges him to tell her the real reason he hated her husband so much he left town.

Sam gives Ashley a stun gun to protect herself while Mike follows spider tracks to the mines, noting that they appear to have grown to enormous size. Hitchhiking home, he’s picked up by Chris, who has been sending miners to look for the lode his father found, at the same time trying to avoid deadly pockets of methane. Mike shows Chris a segment of a huge spider leg he’s found, admitting he fears the spiders are growing and have hurt Joshua. Chris, of course, doesn’t believe him, because “they never believe the kid.” Back in the mine, Chris’s employees are attacked by the giant beasts. Their next attack is on Wade’s ostrich farm, gobbling up birds whole. Local crank radio host Harlan Griffith (Doug E. Doug) starts reporting on stories of pets and other animals being devoured by some sort of creature, which he believes to be an alien.

Ashley, in the desert with Brett, uses the stun gun when he tries to pressure her into sex. She takes his truck and leaves him with his friends, just before the spiders attack. Brett manages to escape into the mines, where he finds several of the miners still alive, webbed into coccoons. Gladys is in the mines as well, through a shaft that opened up into her basement. Chris goes after her, finding an enormous spider leg, and rushes to Sam’s house to talk to Mike. While a puzzled Sam watches, the two of them begin to calculate just how big the spiders are. Down the hall, one of the giants climbs into Ashley’s bedroom. When she screams, Sam and Chris burst into the room and she kills it.

With the phone lines down, Mike suggests they go to Harlan’s radio station and broadcast a warning. They fight their way past the spiders to the station and Sam tells the townspeople to arm themselves, urging them to gather at the mall to make a united stand. With the spiders in force, the people flood the mall and lock themselves in. Their only hope to call for help is Wade’s cell phone, but Chris and Harlan have to climb the antenna on the roof to get a signal. Everyone else raids the mall for weapons. Chris calls the army, but they ignore him, believing it to be a prank call. As he screams at the phone, the spiders begin to punch through the gates protecting the people inside the mall.

The townspeople escape the overrun mall by fleeing into the mines and Chris tries to lead them to an exit. Instead, they find the methane pocket, and Wade and other living people, cocooned to be fed to the queen. Chris tells Sam how to find the way out while he continues to search for Gladys. Before he leaves her, he tries to explain why he left town, but she already knows: his father told her Chris loved her, he knew her husband was cheating on her, but didn’t want to break up her family. She kisses him, tells him to make it up to her later, and they run. Chris finds Gladys, and the vein of gold his father found… but the enormous spider queen is there as well. Afraid to shoot his gun because of the methane, Chris uses advice Mike gave him earlier and spritzes the spider with perfume, driving it back so they can escape. Outside, Sam and Mike fuel the generator that powers the mines, sparking it to life with Ashley’s stun gun. The electricity lights the gas and Chris and Gladys just barely an explosion, which roasts the spiders in the mines, along with the toxic waste Wade had tried to hide, destroying his property in the process. As the cleanup begins, Chris and Sam hold each other, and she tells him she’s glad he came home.

Thoughts: Fear evolves over time, with each generation drawing on the context of its own world to create the things it fears the most: witches in the 17th century, Nazi domination during World War II, trans-fats in the year 2012… but in the 1950s, the big fears were nuclear power and the Soviet Union, which somehow melded in a series of movies where small animals mutated into giant ones and terrorized teenagers and scientists who all smoked pipes. Eight Legged Freaks is a tribute of sorts to that subgenre of the monster movie.

I’m not sure if it says anything about horror/comedies specifically, but looking at David Arquette again certainly brings to mind certain things about Hollywood in general. Just ten years earlier, in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Arquette was cast as the punk teenager. By Scream in 1996, he was the punk teenager’s older brother. Now, in 2002, he’s the love interest to the punk teenager’s mother. Either the years were not kind to him, or Hollywood has tacitly admitted he was really too old to play those other parts in the first place. (If he made another movie with Scarlett Johanssen today, ten years later, I’d bet you even money he would be her love interest rather than her mother’s. Hollywood is weird.)

The sweet-natured, awkward character he plays here isn’t all that different from his character in the Scream films, but it happens to be the sort of character he plays very well. You show me David Arquette playing kind-hearted and a little dorky, and I’m totally on board. I rather liked Scott Terra as Mike as well. He’s the sort of kid who could easily turn into an obnoxious know-it-all, but he’s balanced much better than that. Instead, he comes across as a particularly young example of the one sane man in a room full of lunatics, and the moment when Chris recognizes that and implores the townspeople to “listen to the kid, for once,” is a good little meta-commentary on horror movies and a nice character moment for them all. It’s only made stronger by the fact that most of the people actually do listen.

The monsters themselves, to be frank, could have looked better. The movie uses a lot of CGI, and not great CGI at that. It really would have served the film much better to use campy puppets or models, truly embracing its B-movie roots. When the spiders start crawling out of a miner’s mouth, all I can see is a man standing there, jaw agape, while someone sitting at a computer Photoshops lots of little spiders all over his face. It’s even worse when the giant spiders attack the kids on dirt bikes. In broad daylight, the effects team can’t even rely on the cover of darkness to hide just how weak the computer animation actually is. On the other hand, the movie does use practical effects to show an ostrich exploding, and there’s literally no way to complain about that.

The bad effects really hurt the overall charm of the film, and there’s a lot of it. The plot has an old-school B-movie feel, while the production values (aside from the CGI) are pretty good. I also give the filmmakers credit for using a variety of different spiders throughout the film. There are dozens of different looks and feels of creature in this movie, and while I don’t have nearly enough ichthyologic knowledge to tell you how accurate any of the spiders are (in either appearance or behavior), they at least made an effort, which is more than you can say for a lot of movies. There are plenty of good comedic moments here too. The scene in the mall, when the townspeople grab baseball bats and pitchforks and crossbows and hockey masks and suit up for war, is a nice sort of statement on small-town fortitude. Sure, there turn out to be a few cowards in the group, but many of them stand and fight true, getting out some good quips and solid action (CGI notwithstanding) in the process.

And composer John Ottman deserves every shred of credit one can muster for making a creepy version of “Itsy Bitsy Spider” the core of the movie’s musical score. Every time the strains of that tune begin to play, it’s impossible not to smile.

I really want to love this movie, and there are a lot of parts of it that are wonderfully fun. This is actually a case where I wish they could somehow remake the movie with cheaper special effects. The filmmakers overreached, tried to make an A-movie out of a delightful B-script, and it falls a little flat as a result. I do like this movie, I like it a lot, but if only director Ellory Elkayem had stayed true to the cheesy roots of the film, it could have been a classic.