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What I Watched In… September 2016


Favorite of the Month: Rope (1948)

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. Pit and the Pendulum (1961), C+
  2. Superman (1978), A+
  3. Superman II (1980), B+
  4. Superman III (1983), C
  5. Superman IV: The Quest For Peace (1987), D
  6. Arachnia (2003), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), A
  8. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  9. Maggie (2015), B+
  10. Sex in the Comix (2012), B
  11. The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), A
  12. Contracted (2013), B-
  13. Contracted: Phase II (2015), C
  14. Coherence (2013), B+
  15. Sabotage (1936), B
  16. Trumbo (2015), B
  17. Deathgasm (2015), D
  18. The Phantom Carriage (1921), B+
  19. Black Swan (2010), A-
  20. Burying the Ex (2014), B
  21. Ex Machina (2015), A
  22. Lilo and Stitch (2002), B
  23. Psycho (1960), A+
  24. Psycho II (1983), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  25. DC Super Hero Girls: Hero of the Year (2016), B
  26. Hitchcock (2012), B+
  27. Horror of Dracula (1958), B
  28. Riding the Bullet (2004), C
  29. Ruby (1977), D; RiffTrax Riff, B
  30. Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (2015), B+
  31. The Fly (1986), B+
  32. Ghostheads (2016), B
  33. Holidays (2016), B-
  34. Monster House (2006), B
  35. Going to Pieces: The Rise and Fall of the Slasher Film (2006), B+
  36. Wayne’s World (1992), A-
  37. Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966), F; RiffTrax Live Riff, B+
  38. The Last Lovecraft: Relic of Cthulhu (2009), C
  39. Murder Party (2007), B
  40. Rope (1948), A
  41. Dreamcatcher (2003), C
  42. Trollhunter (2010), B

What I watched in… April 2016


Favorite of the Month: Hush (2016)

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. The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), B+
  2. April Fool’s Day (1986), D
  3. Fateful Findings (2013), F
  4. Jack and the Beanstalk (1952), B
  5. The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), A-
  6. Abraxas, Guardian of the Universe (1990), F; RiffTrax Riff, B
  7. House on Haunted Hill (1959), B-; RiffTrax Riff, B+
  8. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), A
  9. My Dinner With Andre (1981), B
  10. The Blob (1958), B-
  11. The Beginning of the End (1957), D; MST3K Riff, A
  12. The Pee-Wee Herman Show on Broadway (2011), B
  13. Divergent (2014), B
  14. Anastasia (1997), B+
  15. Cube (1997), B
  16. Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky (1991), D
  17. Cube 2: Hypercube (2002), B
  18. Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991), A
  19. Cube Zero (2004), B-
  20. Astro Boy (2009), B-
  21. Hush (2016), A-
  22. Abar, the First Black Superman (1977), D
  23. Criminal (2016), C+
  24. Justice League Vs. Teen Titans (2016), B+
  25. Masters of the Universe (1987), C
  26. Time Bandits (1981), A
  27. Haxan: Witchcraft Through the Ages (1922), B-
  28. Night of the Living Dead (1968), A; RiffTrax Riff, B

What I Watched In… September 2015

Favorite of the month: Black Mass (2015)

Favorite of the month: Black Mass (2015)

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. Swamp Thing (1982), D+
2. The Maze Runner (2014), B-
3. Clue (1985), A
4. LEGO DC Comics Super Heroes: Justice League-Attack of the Legion of Doom (2015), B
5. Nightmares in Red, White, and Blue (2009), B+
6. The Goonies (1985), A+
7. Mad Max Fury Road (2015), A
8. Incredible Hulk (2008), B
9. Julie and Jack (2003), F; RiffTrax Riff, A
10. White Zombie (1932), B-
11. Phantoms (1998), C
12. Children of the Corn (1984), B-
13. Breeders (1997), D
14. Rollergator (1996), F; RiffTraxRiff, B
15. Can’t Hardly Wait (1998), B+
16. The Babadook (2014), B+
17. Zombeavers (2014), D
18. Horns (2013), B+
19. Black Mass (2015), A-
20. Titanic (1997), B+
21. American Experience: Walt Disney (2015), B+
22. The Iron Giant (1999), A+

What I Watched In… August 2015

Favorite of the Month: I Am Big Bird-The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)

Favorite of the Month: I Am Big Bird-The Caroll Spinney Story (2015)

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!

(School is back in session in August. My viewing time was drastically reduced.)

  1.  Dragonslayer (1981), B
  2. Blazing Saddles (1974), A
  3. Comet (2014), B+
  4. Zombie Lake (1981), D
  5. WolfCop (2014), D+
  6. Grand Piano (2013), B
  7. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), A
  8. History of the World Part I (1981), B+
  9. A Deadly Adoption (2015), D
  10. The Producers (2005), B+
  11. Bedazzled (2000), B-
  12. I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story (2015), B+
  13. The ‘Burbs (1989), B+

2014: The Year in Film

Favorite of the Year: Captain America-The Winter Soldier

Favorite of the Year: Captain America-The Winter Soldier

It’s been quite a year. I got married. My wife and I put together a little home together. I directed one play, I’m currently in rehearsals for another. I wrote a new book that — God willing — will be available relatively early in 2015. And in the meantime, I managed to see a few movies.

Not all the movies, mind you. There are still several 2014 releases I haven’t seen yet, often because the aforementioned activities got in the way of my movie time. I still haven’t seen Boyhood, for instance, and I’m dying to. I’m delinquent in keeping up with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, and despite all my efforts to the contrary, I’ve yet to get around to The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies.

So consider this list highly incomplete. These are all the films from 2014 that I have seen, in order of my favorite to my least favorite. This includes direct-to-video and made-for-TV movies. I’ll leave comments for the ones where I have comments to leave.

  • Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Marvel has had a good year — a good couple of years, actually — but this to me was the movie that really elevated their universe beyond simple superhero action into something with greater depth and meaning.
  • Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Similar to Captain America, this film took what Rise of the Planet of the Apes began and ran with it, creating a larger world and a highly intelligent, powerful science fiction film.
  • Guardians of the Galaxy. This was just pure fun.
  • X-Men: Days of Future Past. Easily the best X-Men film to date, and so good that it actually erases some of the sins of the previous films.
  • The LEGO Movie. Again, pure fun, but with a surprising amount of heart to it.
  • Gone Girl. Incredibly tense and engaging.
  • Interstellar. One of the most engaging, entertaining pure sci-fi films in years
  • Godzilla. Fantastic reboot of the franchise.
  • Edge of Tomorrow. Great movie hurt by atrocious marketing.
  • Big Hero 6.
  • Stripped. Fine documentary about the comic strip form.
  • I Am Santa Claus.
  • St. Vincent.
  • Doc of the Dead. Interesting documentary about zombie fiction.
  • Stage Fright. Little seen but actually entertaining musical horror comedy about a slasher killer attacking a theater camp. It’s on Netflix streaming right now. Meatloaf is in it.
  • A Merry Friggin’ Christmas. One of Robin Williams’s final performances, alongside Community‘s Joel McHale.
  • Son of Batman.
  • Justice League: War.
  • Mr. Peabody and Sherman.
  • Big Driver.
  • Chilling Visions: 5 States of Fear. Okay anthology, but the premise holding the segments together is paper-thin.
  • JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time.
  • Maleficent. Could have been a great remake from the villain’s perspective, but a horribly invasive voice over and some poor performances really hurt.
  • Print the Legend.
  • Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.
  • Sin City: A Dame to Kill For. The original remains one of my favorites. This film seems like further proof that Frank Miller has lost his mind.
  • Robocop. Unnecessary, lifeless remake.
  • Lucky Duck. Treacle-filled animated kiddie film I watched with my niece. Just because a movie is targeted for children is no excuse for making it bad.
  • The Amazing Spider-Man 2. After a first movie that I thought was just as good as — maybe better than — the Toby Maguire films, I couldn’t believe how utterly this one fell apart.
  • I, Frankenstein.
  • Happy Christmas. “Hey, you know all those dull, unscripted movies about obnoxious people who can’t get their lives together? Let’s make one at Christmas. And put Lena Dunham in it.”
  • Sharknado 2: The Second One. In fairness, they weren’t trying to make a good movie. They succeeded.
  • Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever. All I can say is that the title was accurate.

What I Watched in… August 2014

Favorite of the Month: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Favorite of the Month: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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. Dick Tracy (1990), B+
2. The Great Martian War 1913-1917 (2013), B+
3. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), A
4. Cabin in the Woods (2012), A
5. Planet Terror (2007), B
6. Doc of the Dead (2014), B+
7. Starship Troopers (1997), C-
8. Six By Sondheim (2013), B
9. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (1941), C
10. Sharknado 2: The Second One (2014), D
11. Sin City (2005), A
12. Robocop (1987), B
13. Robocop (2014), C-
14. Happy Feet Two (2011), C
15. Gravity (2013), A
16. Evil Dead (2013), B
17.  Hollywood After Dark (1968), F; Film Crew Riff, B
18. Stripped (2014), A
19. Godzilla (1998), D; RiffTrax Riff, B+
20. Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014), C+
21. Reading Writing and Romance (2013), C-
22. The Simpsons Movie (2007), B+
23. The Makeover (2013), C+
24. The Wish List (2010), D

Batman Week Day 1: Lewis Wilson in Batman (1943)

Batman 1943Welcome, friends to Batman Week, the first in the ongoing Reel to Reel: Icons series. Each week in this series we’re going to take a look at a different character and five different actors who have brought him or her to life. We begin today, in 1943, with the first ever on-screen appearance of the Caped Crusader himself, Batman.

Director: Lambert Hillyer

Writer: Victor McCleod, Leslie Swabaker, Harry L. Fraser

Cast: Lewis Wilson, Douglas Croft, J. Carrol Naish, Shirley Patterson, William Austin, Gus Glassmire, Sam Flint, Robert Fiske, Charles Middleton

Plot: In this version, Batman and Robin (Lewis Wilson and Douglas Croft) are America’s premiere government-sanctioned crimefighters. They round up a gang of criminals who warn them he’s crossing “Dr. Daka,” but Batman has no time to investigate… he’s got a date coming up with Linda Page (Shirley Patterson).  Linda is concerned about her uncle Martin (Gus Glassmire), and as it turns out, she has good reason. Martin is kidnapped by thugs and brought before Dr. Tito Daka (J. Carrol Naish), who introduces himself as a servant of Hirohito, sent to destroy the United States government and enslave the people of America. Daka drugs Martin and forces him to reveal the location of a radium supply, which he plans to use to power a new secret weapon: a ray capable creating reducing even the hardest substance to powder.

I’m going to get heavily abbreviated with the plot synopsis here: for the next 15 chapters, Daka comes up with one scheme after another to get some radium – stealing it, kidnapping the owner of a radium mine, intercepting a supply being airlifted from a plane, etc. Each time, Batman and Robin stumble upon the plot and thwart it, only surviving by the skin of their teeth, because in the 1940s superheroes were either thrown from a precipice or caught in an explosion every 15 to 20 minutes.  Fortunately, there was always a convenient scaffold or rope beneath them or a convenient archway above them to protect them from falling debris.

Eventually, Daka manages to get his hands on some radium and make a larger, more powerful radium gun. He captures Linda (this is the third or fourth time), and brings her to his lab where he subjects her to a machine that transforms people into brainwashed zombies that will do his bidding.  Batman rushes to the rescue, but is overwhelmed by the zombies and strapped into the machine. Before Daka can unmask him or activate the device, Robin arrives and captures the villain. With Batman free, he makes Daka show him how to reverse Linda’s brainwashing. Daka makes a play to escape, but tumbles into his own open alligator pit, because what’s a supervillain lair without an open alligator pit? When the police arrive, Batman allows them to take the credit for the bust. At the end, Bruce Wayne walks off with Linda, sad that he once again missed seeing the world-famous Batman.

Thoughts: Made only four years after Batman’s first comic book appearance, this early film shows a version of the character that’s still somewhat unformed. While director Lambert Hillyer attempts to bring in a sort of dark warrior approach, comic book characters at the time (and for a long time to come) always seemed to invite a sort of camp element. The first image of Batman in the movie, even, shows him sitting in the Batcave behind a desk that looks like Bruce Wayne had it taken out of an unused office in his corporate headquarters, washed out by too much light with bat-shaped shadows dancing across his face. This lasts long enough for Robin to show up, complete with a curly-topped white ‘fro, and Batman beams like grandpa seeing his children coming over for a visit in the nursing home. All I can do at this point is cross my fingers and hope it’s at least better than anything Joel Schumacher ever did.

Fortunately for us all, it is.

Lewis Wilson’s Batman is far more flippant than the character he would become, and there’s little sign of most of the elements that would make him so popular in the future. There’s no Commissioner Gordon (even though he appeared in the very first Batman comic), no familiar foes, not even a Batmobile. The only things that mark this as a Batman film, in the eyes of a modern fan, are Batman and Robin themselves, Alfred, and the “Bat’s Cave” headquarters. (Ironically, this film actually created the Batcave concept – the cave set was left over from another film, re-used as Batman’s headquarters to save on production costs, and made so much sense they imported the headquarters into the comic books as well.)

Wilson’s version of Batman is also less driven than other versions… the sheer obsession that motivates the character in most other incarnations isn’t present at all… in fact, his origin (including the death of his parents) is never mentioned throughout the course of the story. What’s more, this is a Batman who is uncomfortably comfortable with the deaths of his adversaries, casually allowing Daka’s men to die when their vehicle goes off a cliff and not batting an eye as Alfred fires a pistol at them (although this could potentially be justified as him knowing there’s little chance of Alfred actually hitting anything). The filmmakers do manage to work in a least a few familiar tropes, including an amusing scene where one of the henchmen suggests that Batman may actually be this “Bruce Wayne” fella who keeps turning up, but Daka dismisses the idea that such a fool could be the Batman. We more often see this particular cliché applied to Clark Kent, but over the years the Bruce Wayne masquerade has left Batman open to it from time to time as well. There’s also a rather amusing bit towards the end where the villains decide they’ve killed Batman so many times that there must be multiple men wearing the costume… and maybe Wayne really is one of them after all (another conceit which later stories have explored from time to time).

One thing that doesn’t help the film is how little detective work Batman actually does. Even in his early days, he was painted as a crimefighter with a fierce mind, but this Batman doesn’t show much of that at all, stumbling into the information he needs through luck. There’s the occasional moment of trickery, such as when he cons one of Daka’s thugs into calling for help so he can get the phone number and find their hideout, but even then, it doesn’t come off as particularly clever. Instead, the thug looks stupid for falling into the most obvious trap imaginable. It helps Batman crack the case, but it doesn’t do wonders for his reputation.

Batman 1943 DVDThe fight scenes showcase just how far filmmaking has come since the 1940s… the stunts are often more laughable than thrilling. Wilson is particularly unimpressive as he struggles against the crooks, looking more like the fake Batmen who would get caught by the real one over 60 years later in The Dark Knight than the Dark Knight himself. On the other hand, Douglas Croft’s Robin is actually impressive – a whirling dervish of energy that is believably formidable. This is probably due to the serial format, of course – each chapter (effectively every 15-to-20 minutes of the film) has to end with a cliffhanger, most of which require you to place your hero in mortal danger. It’s a staple of the format, but it winds up leaving Batman looking rather ineffective, with Robin (a character who, in other films and media, was sometimes portrayed as being so useless he was called the “boy hostage”) there to consistently save his ass again and again.

William Austin’s Alfred is distinctly different from the comic book depiction of the character at the time – a plump bumbler. This version, though, became iconic, and Alfred’s thin frame and thin mustache in the comics have been based on Austin’s appearance ever since. His frequent propensity to disguise himself would make its way into the comics as well, eventually evolving into a rather complicated backstory where Alfred was both a celebrated actor and a British secret agent before finally following in his father’s footsteps as the Wayne family butler.

As this was a World War II-era film, the propaganda machine is in full force. Bruce Wayne casually mentions a (false) 4-F status to explain why he’s not in the army, and the villain’s hideout is in the Japanese section of town, which has been – and I’m quoting the narrator here – “cleaned out of those shifty-eyed Japs.” Try to picture a movie getting away with a line like that today, even ironically. Then we meet Daka himself, an unflattering Japanese stereotype if ever there were one. He’s sly, cruel, with a “twisted Oriental brain” (that line courtesy of Uncle Martin) bent on destroying the good old US of A. He’s just a pointy beard and kimono away from being Fu Manchu himself. Even when one of his henchmen turns against him (seconds before his death), his betrayal comes with a healthy dose of anti-Japanese racism, referencing his cowardice as matching the color of his skin, among other things. Daka also falls into some generic supervillain stereotypes – the arrogance that comes with the role, for example. He also uses the Bond Villain trope two decades before Bond does – when he finally has Batman captured in his hideout, he gloats instead of killing or even unmasking him, just long enough for Robin to show up and stop him.

As befit the serials of the time, which needed to pad themselves out for a few months, the plot seems unnecessarily complex. The scene where Bruce impersonates a Swami to warn Linda away from the investigation, for example, is pointless. She winds up unconscious (again) anyway, and the whole episode could easily have been sidestepped… there’s almost no plot progression at all, and we roll straight into Batman chasing the thugs to try to save the radium. In fact, the radium angle leads into one mini adventure after another where the goal is always the same: Daka is trying to get his hands on some radium, Batman stumbles into the plot and tries to thwart it, over and over and over again without actually changing anything. One could easily jump from episode four to about thirteen and still have no problem understanding the ending of the series. I’ll give Daka this much – he’s not like some supervillains who give up on a perfectly good scheme the first time it’s thwarted – but watching the entire serial in one sitting displays how repetitive the storytelling was. Daka comes across as foolish, even naive, considering how many times his men promise him, cross their hearts, and pinky swear that they really did kill Batman this time, honest, and he always believes them, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This serial is fondly remembered, and for good reason. There’s some silly charm to it, if you can get past the severe culture shock of the way our heroes treat not only the Japanese villain, but the Japanese in general. It may be remembered as just a footnote, however, if not for what came next… a rerelease of this film in the 60s helped stir up support for the then-weakening Batman franchise, and led to 20th Century Fox taking a chance on producing a TV show. That show had more in common with this camp Batman than the dark hero he would later become, but its popularity helped save Batman from going away entirely like many of the other heroes born during World War II. If not for this serial, you see, we may never have had the incarnation of the hero we’re going to talk about tomorrow: Adam West’s Batman.

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: 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!

Anticipating 2013

Okay, folks, since people are talking about such things, I’ve put together a list of my ten most-anticipated films of 2013. This, of course, is based on what trailers I’ve seen, what news I’ve heard, and my previous experience with the franchises in question. Assuming I remember, I’ll come back at the end of the year, take a look at these ten films, and let you know if I think they met with my expectations. In alphabetical order, because I find it hard to rank such things.

  • Ender’s Game-One of my favorite books of all time. Harrison Ford as Admiral Graff. I know some fans are upset that they aged the kids and compressed the story into a year, but I can honestly understand why. It’s a reasonable concession to make the story work for a movie, and I’m willing to give them a pass on it if everything else works.
  • The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug-I’ve always enjoyed Tolkien and I liked the first installment quite a bit. Looking forward to watching it continue.
  • Iron Man 3-I really loved the first two and Avengers was amazing. I’m hoping Marvel Studios can keep the energy up there.
  • Man of Steel-Because I am a lifelong Superman fan and the trailer kicked ass. Amy Adams is a perfect choice for Lois Lane, and Christopher Nolan’s involvement as producer gives this movie some serious potential.
  • Monsters University-The original Monsters, Inc. is one of my favorite Pixar films, and the trailers for this prequel have made me laugh.
  • Oz: The Great and Powerful-I’ve loved the Oz books my whole life, and this looks like Sam Raimi actually mined the novels for material pretty deeply. I’m interested.
  • Pacific Rim-Directed by Guillermo del Toro, first of all. And judging by the trailers, it’s basically Robotech versus Godzilla. If that doesn’t get you excited, I don’t want to know you.
  • Saving Mr. Banks-Tom Hanks playing Walt Disney in the story of how Mary Poppins was brought to the screen. Perfect casting, high hopes.
  • Star Trek Into Darkness-The last movie made me a Trek fan again long after I thought Voyager killed that piece of my heart.
  • The Stupidest Angel-I’m a big fan of Christopher Moore’s novel about an idiot angel who screws up a kid’s Christmas wish and almost brings about a zombie apocalypse. A heartwarming tale of Christmas terror indeed. And Rhea Perlman is in it, for crying out loud.

Lunatics and Laughter Day 19: Zombieland (2009)

zombielandtDirector: Ruben Fleischer

Writers: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin, Bill Murray

Plot: Zombies have taken over the world, and only a few isolated survivors remain. A young man from Columbus, Ohio (Jesse Eisenberg) has lasted longer than anyone he knows thanks to a carefully constructed set of rules, assembled mainly through trial and error. Little things make a difference in Zombieland: cardio, “double tapping” (always use a second bullet to make sure the zombie is dead), and of course, fastening your seatbelt. He’s a nervous sort, afraid of clowns, and mostly a loner. “Columbus” is making the long journey home from Texas in the hopes that his parents may still be alive. He is picked up by a cowboy hat-wearing fella in an SUV who calls himself Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson). In order not to get attached, Tallahassee insists on using their hometowns as identifiers, rather than bothering with real names. Tallahassee’s passion for killing zombies is matched only by his craving to find a Twinkie, and when they encounter a supermarket, Tallahassee insists on stopping to check it out. Instead, they find a young woman who identifies herself as Wichita (Emma Stone). Her younger sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin) has been bitten, and they’re begging for help – they need a gun to kill her. Tallahassee is about to pull the trigger, but Wichita asks to do it herself. Taking the gun, she turns on the men, stealing their car, ammunition, and weapons; it was all a scam.

The girls head west, planning to get to a supposed safe zone called Pacific Playland. Tallahassee, meanwhile, finds a Hummer in good condition, loaded with big guns. They set out to find the girls, and although Columbus cautions Tallahassee not to let his anger take him, Tallahassee says he’s got nothing but the little pleasures since he lost his puppy, Buck. They find the SUV on the side of the road, hood open, abandoned. While Tallahassee checks it out, Little Rock hijacks Columbus in the Hummer. The girls rob them, again, but this time take them on the road. Wichita drops the sad news that Columbus, Ohio, burned to the ground during the outbreak. She offers to drop Columbus off so he can find a new path, but he decides to stay with her.

Eventually, they make it to California, where Tallahassee suggests finding and resting in the home of his favorite celebrity: Bill Murray, an unknown quantity to the 12-year-old Little Rock. They split up to search the place for zombies, and Columbus decides to culture Little Rock by showing her Ghostbusters in Murray’s own movie theater. Tallahassee and Wichita, elsewhere, make enough noise to summon a zombie – Murray himself. Or so it seems. Murray, still alive, had himself made up in zombie makeup as a defense. He begins showing his guests a good time, reenacting scenes from his movies, and they convince him to prank the jittery Columbus by pretending to be a zombie again. The joke goes too far and Columbus shoots Bill Murray in the chest. As he dies, Murray identifies his one regret: Garfield.

As they decompress and remember the things they miss from the Pre-Zombieland world, Columbus realizes the “Buck” Tallahassee has been mourning isn’t really his dog, like he said, but his son. He has a good cry, finally letting the emotion out. Later, Wichita brings Columbus a bottle of wine. As they trade life stories, Wichita asks him to dance, and he’s about to kiss her when Tallahassee interrupts, asking for help in moving the couch to build a fort.

In the morning, the girls take the Hummer and leave the guys behind, Wichita upset that she almost broke her cardinal rule: the sisters trust no one but each other. They drive the last few miles to the Pacific Playland amusement park. Instead of the zombie-free paradise they were promised, when Wichita turns the power back on the lights and sounds draw all the undead for miles. They are trapped at the top of a ride, surrounded. At Murray’s house, Columbus fails to persuade Tallahassee to help him find the girls and starts to set out on his own. When he drives a motorcycle into a hedge, Columbus takes pity on him, and they take one of Murray’s cars to Pacific Playland. Tallahassee lures the zombies away from the ride so he can blow them away. He locks himself in a carnival booth, shooting through the bars and ceiling, killing all the zombies he can. Columbus, meanwhile, makes it to the girls just in time: there’s a zombie climbing the ladder towards them and they’re out of ammo. But before he can charge to the rescue he encounters his greatest fear: a zombie clown. Taking a page from Tallahasse, he beats the clown to hell and saves the girls. Wichita gives him a special prize – her real name – and he kisses her. As they leave, Little Rock tosses Tallahassee a Twinkie from the snack bar, and the odd little family sets out on the road again.

Thoughts: Writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally conceived Zombieland as a TV series, and looking at the movie through that prism, it’s actually pretty obvious. It plays much like a TV pilot, introducing a cast of characters and a situation through which it would be easy to tell a lot of stories over an extended period of time. It also explains why, unlike most zombie movies, the entire principal cast survives the film. There are a lot of short holdovers from that TV script as well – the rules for surviving Zombieland were intended as part of the TV framing sequence, and the “Zombie Kill of the Week” was going to literally be a “kill of the week.” It also suggests that there may have been intended answers to some of the assorted questions the story leaves open – why sisters Wichita and Little Rock have different home towns, for example, or perhaps even more tellingly, why on Earth the electricity is still on everywhere we go. Seriously, throughout the film we see a total of five living people post-outbreak, how is it that the only place with no energy is the amusement park, and all it takes to get that going again is Wichita hitting a few switches?

Those minor holes aside, the movie is still intensely enjoyable. The story comes across as a clear Type A horror movie, but that doesn’t diminish the comedy at all. We get a group of very funny, very relatable characters in this movie, each of whom displays more depth and potential than their archetypes would suggest. Columbus is your standard awkward nerd, and the others tease him as such, but at the same time the very fact that he’s survived so long on his own reveals the sort of steel he really has. Tallahassee’s tenderness is hidden for much of the movie, but obvious when he decides to open up about his son, and integral in his decision to join Columbus on the rescue mission. The girls are tough and fight dirty, but at the core is a mutual desire to protect each other. We don’t know why, exactly, they’re so damaged, but that damage is presented in a believable way that makes their behavior easy to understand. The four of them fit together very naturally and very organically, in a way that leaves open plenty of room for the comedy.

I was reluctant to talk about the Bill Murray sequence in my recap, because not only is it a delicious, hysterical segment of the film, but it was such a surprise when I saw it that I think it ratcheted my overall enjoyment of the movie as a whole, and I hate to spoil that for anybody else. But then, I suppose anyone who hasn’t seen the movie yet either won’t read this recap or doesn’t care about spoilers, so why skip talking about something so memorable? The thing is, the film was planned in such a way that any of several celebrities could have been plugged into those scenes, depending entirely on who they could get to agree to do it. I don’t know who else was under consideration and I don’t care: Murray was perfect. His pedigree, the chance to listen to him as he performed some of his greatest one-liners, the admission that making Garfield was a terrible mistake… who else could have possibly filled that role in such a perfect fashion?

The finale, not to overstate it, is the greatest thing ever committed to celluloid. Killing zombies is always fun. Doing it while riding roller coasters, marching through a haunted house, or dangling from one of those spinning swing rides? It’s the stuff that dreams are made of. Or at least a bitchin’ video game. In fact, that’s what the last fight actually feels like: we’re watching Tallahassee and Columbus fight their way through the final level, except instead of one boss it’s just more zombies than anybody has ever seen.

The zombies themselves really feel like a secondary element to this film. While it wouldn’t work as well if the apocalypse was caused by vampires or a virus or something of those sorts, the zombies are just stage dressing. In many ways, this movie shares a lot in common with that other zombie TV show that did get made. In The Walking Dead, the zombies are usually relegated to the background – a problem to be dealt with, to be sure, but not the major thrust of the stories. The same is true here. The major difference is that The Walking Dead plays the scenario for drama, while this is a relatively lighthearted comedy. The only truly serious moment, in terms of character, is when we realize that Tallahassee is mourning a dead child instead of a dead puppy, and our hearts break a little… something that is rectified only moments later when he wipes his tears away with a wad of now-useless money.

Like I’ve said for several of our recent films, I hope the suggested sequel to this someday gets made. Sure, Eisenberg and Stone have both become much bigger stars since the film premiered and Breslin is a teenager now, but that doesn’t mean the time lapse couldn’t be worked into the story in an organic way. By design, these are characters that have a lot of life left in them and much more story to tell. I just hope, sooner or later, we get to see it.