Posts Tagged ‘Movie Review’

Hereditary (2018)

October 9, 2019

Rated R for gore, language, violence and plenty of spooks

What we inherit from our parents can be a frightening thought. For example, genetics are particularly likely to cause anxiety among new parents or prospective parents. This is one reason why so many people are getting genetic testing these days to see what they might pass on to their kids. Who knows what nasty thing could be lurking in your genes? I have known a lot of people who were worried they might inherit their parent’s alcoholism or high risk of cancer. These days these unknowns are getting less likely but there is still the chance that something stays dormant in your genetics and pops up generations later. For example, I was born with a rare heart defect which led to an absolutely terrifying fifth-grade year. Also, dementia might run in my family which has me worried.

It is also not just genetics we inherit. Most people think about inheriting property and money but there can be other things lurking. People joke about inheriting debt but our current laws make that mostly impossible. Well, except for debt causing a chain of poverty down through the generations. What I am talking about is that sometimes we do not know the people in our life as well as we thought we did. You can find some very troubling things in the belongings of the deceased. For instance, my family cleared out a house that used to belong to a neighbor of ours. We found a ton of firearms, KKK memorabilia, and Nazi memorabilia. I worked on an Estate once where they found a cardboard box of drivers licenses with names that had no discernible connection to the deceased. I did not investigate.

The first thing I noticed about this movie is the pervasive tone of dread throughout the early parts of the movie. This makes sense as it is labeled as a psychological horror movie. The lighting, the music, the soft tones of people’s voices, it all adds up and starts ratcheting up the tension without the use of jump scares or spring-loaded cats. When the very real fear is mental illness, you do not need to pile anything on top of that. Part of that is also that the special effects are incredibly subtle the few that are there. The movie is mostly dread and anticipation as you wait for something bad to happen. The rest is how the mind deals with emotions and reality after bad things happen with the looming specter of mental illness. Or is something else going on? The ambiguous nature of the movie definitely made it all the scarier.

The acting is superb in this. Toni Colette plays the mom, struggling with the guilt she feels after her mother dies and her own worries over her sanity. She is the heart and soul of this movie and she does such a great job realistically breaking down. Milly Shapiro is so great as the daughter, a young eccentric girl who might be on the autism spectrum or might just be a late bloomer of some sort. Alex Wolff plays the son, a young kid who feels disconnected from it all and just wants to get back to a normal life. Gabriel Byrne plays the husband who is a bit out of his depth even though he’s a psychiatrist. The dynamic between the characters just feels like a close yet slightly dysfunctional family. If it were not a horror movie, I could definitely see them having a cool story arc like in Lady Bird.

Overall, I loved the movie as it was definitely a mind-warping experience. The movie plays with your perceptions of reality through unreliable narrators. It is so well done that it was hard to shake this movie from my psyche. I know something is scary if it sticks with me for a long time afterward. I would definitely put this movie in the same box that includes The Witch.

The Pit and the Pendulum (1991)

October 7, 2019

Rated R for gore, torture, and full-frontal nudity.

 

Today is the anniversary of the death of Edgar Allen Poe, a great writer and one of the fathers of modern horror. He was also less problematic than some other older authors. Of course, the reason that I continue to honor Poe is that, although he was born in Boston, he was a famous resident of Baltimore. Baltimore buried him and claims him and his legend. He was arguably the father of the detective genre in literature and was one of the earliest writers to employ the short story. I love short stories. I love to read them and I love to write them. Poe published originally through newspapers and other periodicals. I carry out his tradition through this blog. Self-publishing was not something that was really possible in Poe’s day. A lot of Poe’s work has a deep, existential dread and my mind often drifts to reference his works subconsciously. I want to continue to find good adaptations of his work to help keep it alive.

The Spanish Inquisition was undoubtedly an incredibly scary time in history. Any period of time when a subsection of the populace is not only hunted but tortured when caught, it is terrifying. We have had similar periods in our country, the closest of which was probably the Salem Witch Trials. However, the inquisition was done on such a grander scale. The Church took control of the State and drove it into committing atrocities against the People. There was never any consequences, as the Church and the State rarely face consequences. It is literally the same energy and ideology that led to the rise of the Nazi party. It is the same thread of evil that we must face again and again in every period of history. Manipulation through ignorance that leads to horrors beyond imagining. Torture, rape, murder. It makes me shudder.

The first thing I noticed is the overall tone of the movie. This movie is not a traditional horror movie as much of Poe’s work covers a lot of existential dread and the horrors of man (his Lovecraftian works notwithstanding). In this, he is tackling the terror of being under the power of a fascist regime. That feeling of powerlessness as you are exposed daily to terror while bystanders not only condone it but smirk and judge you for being its victim. However, there is also plenty of comedy in the movie for contrast. The comedy feels like that in The Death of Stalin, where you feel you should not laugh but you are forced to. The movie uses lighting and severe architecture as a way to reinforce the tone of this authoritarian terror. The music also does a lot, with great orchestral and choral pieces to really lay it on thick. Also, there is the expected amount of horrible gore (in true Full Moon fashion).

The star of the movie is Lance Hendrickson who plays the infamous and very real Torquemada. He obviously pours himself into the role, playing the role of a merciless zealot to the hilt. Every scene he is in, I felt like he was staring right through my soul. Apparently, he researched the role a lot and stayed in character between scenes (and sometimes in public in Italy) which I am sure was a delight. Rona de Ricci plays the young heroine in the clutches of Torquemada. She is great at being young and innocent and sympathetic. Jonathan Fuller plays the young hero whose wife is in danger and he is powerless to protect her. Frances Bay plays a snarky, brassy woman who is a fellow prisoner and de Ricci’s partner in crime for much of the movie. Mark Margolis plays Torquemada’s thuggish torturer sidekick with dark pleasure.

Overall, I really liked this version of the story. It was directed by Stuart Gordon who also directed Re-Animator and Dolls, two movies of this season that I also love. The movie stays true to the story of religious mania and authoritarian power of the original story. It also has all of the gore you would expect if you read the original story.

Shocker (1989)

October 4, 2019

Rated R for some gore, blood, and plenty of foul language.

No matter how one feels about capital punishment aka the death penalty, one has to admit that it is definitely pretty horrific. Whether people feel that it is justified or not, committing the actual deed is very scary. Pretty much every method we humans have thought of is absolutely terrible. We thought of beheading, which we know causes sharp pain and the head is often aware for moments after completion. Hanging breaks the neck when done right but causes a slow, painful death when done incorrectly. Firing squads are clearly painful with no question. The electric chair is absolutely brutal as it takes time for the body to overload with electricity and every pain receptor must fire off at once. The gas chamber is not only painful but has extremely unfortunate historical implications. We have recently learned that the method of lethal injection is both severely painful and extremely fallible. This is all coupled with must be the horrible anticipation and dread that being on death row brings.

As a former theater electrician, I developed a healthy respect for the awesome power of electricity. When I was first learning the trade for real in college, I had a lot of great teachers. I took to it immediately having had a little bit of experience already. Those who showed zero experience and zero instinct for the work were often nicknamed “Sparky”. Such was the case with a man who later became a friend who tried to loosen a lightbulb with a screwdriver. The mocking was not meant to be cruel. It was meant to make those who followed safety rules good and correct those who did not immediately follow the rules. I learned a lot from that gang of misfits. When I later worked with the audio department, I worked on a project where I learned what to do when somebody on a job site was getting electrocuted. All you had to do was loop your belt around their waist and attempt to pull and break the connection without completing the circuit with your own body. I was only shocked once and that is all it took to respect that force for the rest of my life.

The first thing I noticed was that this movie was very in line with Wes Craven’s other works of the time. As evidenced by the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, Craven was definitely interested in dreams and weird imagery. The Scream and the Nightmare franchises show that he is very interested in getting meta. This movie combines the two concepts and ups the comedy aspects. It feels like Craven was cutting loose after producing two Freddy movies and being bombarded with the rest of the franchise. The movie knows exactly what it is and puts the pedal to the medal on how ridiculous things can get. Part of that is the crazy special effects they used. There are a lot of standard lightning effects but there were other things that surprised me. Including television into the mix makes for some great comedy and some inventive story beats. It feels like an answer to where the Freddy franchise had gone and maybe it was Craven stretching his legs a bit.

Part of the charm of this movie is the acting by Mitch Pileggi as the home-invading serial murderer who gets a brand new MO. He is so fun even as he murders people. He is like a cross between Freddy Krueger and Charles Lee Ray. He has a lot of the same snarky charm as Robert Englund and Brad Dourif portrayed too. Craven made a rare move and cast a male as the hero but still did a lot of the same beats as with a “final girl”. Peter Berg plays the dumb jock who suddenly finds himself with a psychic connection to the killer. Camille Cooper plays his girlfriend, a highly intelligent woman who I thought was going to be dismissed but she ends up being way more important. The rest of the cast plays their goofy parts to the hilt. There is plenty of pathos and drama but I really enjoyed the dorky comic relief in this movie. Horror fans will love cameos from Heather Langenkamp and Ted Raimi. Fans of goofy guys getting terrorized will love the cameo from John Tesh.

Overall, I really loved this movie. Like I said earlier, it definitely felt like a movie that knew exactly what it was and went for it. It was very much like Happy Death Day 2 U which I saw earlier this year. It is also the same spirit that the Fast and Furious franchise has where you cannot wait for the next ridiculous thing to happen and when it is all over, you understand everything that happened for a reason.

The Gate (1987)

October 2, 2019

Rated PG-13 for fantasy horror, existential dread, and stop-motion creepiness.

I am the oldest brother out of three brothers and I was born in the 1980s. This means that I lived through a time where it was not out of the ordinary for parents to leave their kids alone in the home. As the oldest, I was in charge and given the responsibility to keep the younger ones safe. I mean, they were only four and five years younger than me so it did not take much. We either watched television together or we went our separate ways since there was more than one television and three floors to our house. I never once threw a party when my parents were out. However, we did have rules. The doors were to remain locked and the phone was not really supposed to be answered. If we did answer the phone, we were to say our mother was in the shower. It could be a little spooky if I was alone. Not in a child abuse kind of way but in a thrilling, nervous energy kind of way. It was these moments that taught me how to live alone and be completely comfortable with it.

When you are a kid, it is really easy to imagine very scary things. Every shadow is an excuse to make up stories about monsters. Every cave in the wilderness is the home of a big bear or even a troll. I soaked in stories and imagined so many creepy crawlies especially in the wilderness. I was born a city boy and I have spent over two-thirds of my life in that same city. So those scraps of nature were always magical to me. Nature was for dreaming. I used to walk along the stream that wound through the city along the path from school to home and imagine so many things. I especially remember thinking up so many things out in Oregon Ridge Park near where my friend Arthur lived. He lived in an entirely different world that I eventually moved to myself after college. Now I am back in the city and I still take walks through Druid Hill Park and daydream. Of course, I never imagined anything really sinister and scary. I imagined fairies, vaguely dangerous animals, and mythical creatures.

My first impression of the movie is that it has the same kid-friendly creepy trippiness that I felt from watching Invaders from Mars. This was the time of horror where practical effects had been perfected and digital effects were really just beginning. The movie does a lot with costuming and forced perspective, things that would later be used in the same way in the Lord of the Rings franchise. I can clearly see great effects which were used later in stuff like Stranger Things and the Elm Street franchise. I can see great parallels to other gateway horror classics like Monster Squad, Fright Night, and even Gremlins. I love the character design of the creatures both in costume form and in the creepier stop motion form. I love stop motion animation so much, though, and it is used to great effect in this movie. The story is great for what it is, tapping into a lot of real childhood fears and mixing those with supernatural fears. Having precocious kids and teenagers facing off against the supernatural horrors is always fun. Moreover, everybody is perfectly reasonable in their actions based on what they know at the time. None of that silly genre-inflicted stupidity.

This is Stephen Dorff’s first movie released in theaters at age 14 but you would hardly know it. For a child actor, he is already on top of his game as the precocious, nerdy little brother who just wants a little respect. It is clear why he is still acting if he was this good early on. Louis Tripp plays his best friend, a troubled but good-natured odd duck kid who is obsessed with heavy metal and the occult. He is a lot of fun and reminds me of some of the misfits I grew up with. Christa Denton is great at the older sister who used to be a tomboy but is now trying to grow into her feminity in order to fit in with her friends. She cares for her little brother but also does not want to look bad. The rest of the cast is filled in with Christa’s assorted friends who are a little more cold-hearted and immature than she is. They are a band of teens that a lot of good horror movies need.

Overall, I really loved this movie. I usually try to start off Halloween with a gateway horror film, something for people to watch with their families. I got this one off of a listicle on Bloody Disgusting and I am glad I did. I have not heard much buzz about this movie and I was unlikely to hear anything as it was not a franchise and came out over thirty years ago. I am so happy to find weird cult classic films like this because I feel like I am making this month extra special. I definitely recommend it and it is not so scary that preteens have to be escorted out of the room.

Zombies (2018)

April 30, 2019

(I just realized that I am starting and ending this month on a Disney musical)

Anyone who actually reads this blog regularly knows that I am a huge fan of Halloween and supernatural-themed fiction. Recently, I was thinking about a post I wrote on this day in 2015 as part of this event. I had talked then about how I did not really care for zombie movies as they were slow and plodding like the monsters that inhabit them. I guess I also felt that fiction about infection and loss of self were not quite my cup of tea. However, I have developed a policy of not dismissing categorizations of entertainment out of hand. I hate when people put down what I like so I owe it to all of the zombie fans out there to keep sampling things to see if I can find something I like. So far, I have actually been successful. Last Halloween I watched Train to Busan and I a couple Halloweens ago I fell in love with the Red Snow franchise and the television show iZombie. Just this year there are two zombie moves coming out that I actually really want to see. One is Little Monsters which is a movie about a kindergartner teacher who has to deal with zombies. The other is The Dead Don’t Die which has an all-star cast and is opening Cannes.

I am also a huge fan of Disney. I grew up reading Disney storybooks, watching Disney movies, and singing along to Disney soundtracks. I was just the right age for the dawn of Disney Channel Original Movies and I ended up watching a lot of them. At some point, I dropped off but when I worked up in New Jersey, I was often furloughed for two months in January and February. I spent a lot of time back in Baltimore and I helped around my mom’s house. This meant that I was alone in the house a lot during the day. I ended up watching a lot of Disney Channel because it was upbeat and it kept my depression at bay. So it was that I ended up watching a lot of musicals on Disney. Yes, I watched the High School Musical series and many others. It is when I discovered a love of pop music. More recently, I have watched the Descendants franchise which was basically made for somebody like me. I do not have cable television anymore but from time to time I do check on the big events to keep up with things. I missed this one but I guess it is time to remedy that.

I really liked the comic book-style opening which gives the exposition (speaking of iZombie). If I have to sit through exposition, I prefer for it to be pretty instead of a wall of text. Since it is Disney, the art direction has a particular look but it feels like this one went even further. Since this is a movie about culture clash, the movie takes the same tactic as Crybaby and makes the two cultures look radically different. Zombies are poor and punk while normal people are straight and clean. The movie actually did feel a bit like a John Waters musical. The acting is very on the nose and straightforward while also being pretty corny. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It is also Disney so while the zombies are stated as having eaten brains in the past, they have largely resolved that problem. Also, zombies are no longer rotting and are instead pale with bright green hair. This is good as otherwise there would be human/zombie interaction with zombies having body parts falling off.

The music is pretty good if you like Disney pop music. Modern pop groups and Disney musicals have set a precedent for signing and dancing because they inspire people to try it at home. This is a great thing as it allows fans to get involved. I watched a “Sing Along” version of the movie and it really helped to get into the songs. The movie stars Meg Donnelly as a pretty self-aware young human girl who aspires to be a cheerleader and fit in. It also stars Milo Manheim as a zombie who is kind of dumb but likable. Trevor Tordjman plays one of the villains, an egomaniac male cheerleader who is ruthless. Carla Jefferey plays Donnelly’s best friend and she plays the nerdy, excited best friend so well. Kylie Russell plays Manheim’s best friend and she is the perfect example of a student (zombie) activist. The rest of the cast is great at being funny character actors.

Overall, I thought it was a good movie. It was a lot of goofy fun with poppy, upbeat music, and upbeat acting. People complain about the Disney formula but why fix what is not broken. The movie gives a pretty good message of tolerance which is a good thing to show to young audiences. It also shows that no matter how far we go, there will always be prejudiced people. For a poppy teen movie, it also showed some subtlety in how the “other” are treated. It is a pleasant enough movie with some catchy tunes and some funny acting.

(Written on 4/29/19 – Cutting it Close, huh?)

Xanadu (1980)

April 27, 2019

Disco gets kind of a bad rap, I think. In its day, Disco was an unstoppable force of music. It was shiny and happy and was everywhere. It was born in 1970 and unofficially “died” in 1979 but its death throes obviously carried into the 1980s. It had many things going against it. First, Disco became a musical genre that was dominated by white people even though a lot of black people helped create it. Second, the culture of disco and disco clubs seemed to promote sexual promiscuity and heavy drug use. Disco also flooded the market with subjectively terrible music that drowned out the truly fun disco tunes. These distractions left Disco open for younger and hungrier emerging genres like Punk, Heavy Metal, Rap, and New Wave. Disco died even though it did not really need to but from its ashes, we got modern Pop and Techno music. Its death was not in vain but it is sad to me when any art form or genre dies.

I remember roller skating a lot from when I was a young boy. I was born in 1982, a year and a half after this movie was released. During my childhood, which stretched from the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties, it seemed like there were two main choices for kids birthday parties. While I had parties where we had a literal field day or played minigolf at the coolest arcade in town, others just wanted to have pizza at the roller rink named Skateland. Skateland was a Baltimore institution. The one I went to was closed a long time ago but I know the franchise still exists. As I remember it, it was a huge slick floor where people of various skill levels skated around and around in a huge oval. The really good people often went into the center and did tricks. I was never one of those people, nor did I want to be. I was there for the pizza and the least amount of skating I could get away with. This is where I first heard a lot of songs that I have rarely heard outside of a roller rink. Songs by Ace of Base, Blue Suede, C&C Dance Factory, and the Village People were often played as loud as possible. I would often skate for a while and then run around the carpeted area outside of the rink with my friends. Then I would try to sneak over and plunk down any quarters I had at the arcade.

So first off, this was a box office bomb but it has an eclectic cast some of whom are seasoned musical performers. Olivia Newton-John is the star of this movie. Frankly, I liked her much more in this than I did in her most notable musical role. She is allowed to be really weird, ethereal, and mysterious in this which is fun. Michael Beck plays the male lead. He had just been in cult classic The Warriors. He had never really been in a Hollywood musical before but he plays the artist who is somehow more stable and grounded than Newton-John. He is a little flat in places but he is a solid performer. He does not sing. There is also an odd but likable performance from the legend Gene Kelly in his last film role. We get his trademark fast tongue and high energy mostly but he also gets a chance to shine at what he is most known for: dancing. In a lot of scenes, he looks tired but when he starts to dance, he looks as happy and as light as he always did.

The music is actually really good. First, they made a smart move and hired the Electric Light Orchestra to do a lot of the music. If you are not familiar, they are the band who did Mr. Blue Sky, Evil Woman, and Don’t Bring Me Down. Their synthy sound and Jeff Lynne’s floaty vocals are perfect for how weird this movie is. Also, they are a fun upbeat band to have around. The other songs definitely feel disco-inspired which, again, is strange considering the decline of disco as a genre. The music of Jazz and traditional show tunes are briefly touched upon through Gene Kelly’s character, linking this movie with a lot of the older musicals. Somehow, the movie manages to blend these three disparate styles together without it being too jarring. The movie is filled to the brim with special effects but they are 1980s special effects. They are over the top lights and sparkles that make things magical before CGI was a thing. There is also a random Don Bluth animated music video in the movie. The art direction is all over the place which feels right for the eighties which was all about clashing styles and weirdness.

Overall, I actually I liked this movie more than I thought I would. At first, I was not a big fan of the movie. It is a really strange movie but it has an endearing earnestness to it that I could not ignore. While a lot of the music is not really my thing, it is not bad at all. The chemistry between Olivia Newton-John and Michael Beck is cute and honestly, some of the best scenes have no dialogue and just have them smiling at each other and dancing/rollerskating. The friendship between Beck and Gene Kelly represents the connection between the old and the new and also reinforces the main theme of chasing your dreams. I also got more interested when I found out that the plot is based on Greek mythology concerning muses. Still, the movie drags in a lot of places and the pacing is weird. I can see why the critics trashed this one but it is not as bad as they said if you like weirdness.

A Star Is Born (2018)

April 22, 2019

I used to really love to sing when I was much younger. Although, “used to” is not exactly an accurate term to use here. I still love to sing but mostly on my own in my car or in the shower just because the music I am listening to moves me. Sometimes I will sing from memory when I am nervous or high strung. But I used to sing in front of people. For years I was in the chorus at school and I only slightly let the fact that I was placed in with the sopranos bother me. I was the only guy in the soprano section but I just soldiered on. Nobody teased me but ingrained gender bias is a difficult psychological obstacle for a young boy. Later, I joined the church choir and I was tentatively put in with the baritones. In order to secure that position, I started purposefully singing an octave lower so I was not moved to sing with the girls. Finally, the director had it and told me if I was not going to sing correctly, I should not sing. She told me this at a performance at a senior center. During the performance, I just stood there with my mouth closed. That was my last day in the church choir.

Still, even if I had soured on singing in a group, I still sometimes toyed with the idea of public singing. Now, I have not really ever told anybody this before but at some point, I had fantasies of being a singer for a rock band. I really love the energy and rhythm of rock and roll and I often cannot help but sing along to it. Now, I entertained these fantasies knowing full well that I do not have an amazing voice or the inclination to practice that skill. I also had (have) crippling stage fright that would have made being the frontman of a band either impossible or incredibly unenjoyable. Even so, I would listen to my albums and close my eyes and sing along. The only thing encouraging me is the observation that went around my childhood home since I can remember. I believe it was my mother who pointed out that there were a lot of rock and roll singers who did not have the best voices or trained musical talent. What made them great was that they poured their entire heart into singing and succeeded from pure charm and energy. It was encouraging at the time but I am happy where I ended up.

A quick note here: I have not seen the other versions of this movie yet so I have nothing to compare this movie to. Of course, the point of this movie is the music. From the jump, I loved the bluesy rock and country that Bradley Cooper plays. I am a sucker for riffing guitars and chugging bass and he does a good job of that performance I was talking about above. He might not be the most polished but he is putting his whole heart into the performance. In other scenes, he gives more of a refined performance so that you really believe that he is a professional musician. Lady Gaga is, of course, a great singer. She is a proven commodity in the recording industry and her growth from her beginnings really shows here. She sings big musical show numbers and intimate ballads with the same talent. She also sings some songs in her usual pop style. Her rendition of La Vie En Rose (a personal favorite song of mine) was especially mindblowing. There is definitely a gap in their talent levels but it was not nearly as wide as I thought it would be. In addition, all of the music is sung live which definitely gives it more of a dynamic and energetic feel. The music is co-written by Willie Nelson’s son Lukas Nelson.

I was completely surprised at how good of an actress Lady Gaga was. I had seen a bit of her in American Horror Story: Hotel but she spent much of the time looking gorgeous and aloof. Granted, I did not see a whole lot but she did not get much of a chance to really act. She immediately impressed me in this. She definitely proved to me (and obviously audiences and professional critics) that she has what it takes to play in the big leagues of Hollywood. Bradley Cooper has grown as an actor and he continues to be able to transform himself in each role. In some of my favorite movies, he is a gay man, a space raccoon, and an FBI agent. In this movie, he plays a character that I am very familiar with. He is a troubled asshole who is super charismatic. Sam Elliott is, of course, a great actor as well. He is great at playing that gruff, grumpy guy you cannot help but like. There were also surprising performances from Greg Grunberg, Dave Chapelle, and Andrew Dice Clay of all people.

Overall, I thought this was a really good movie. These sorts of dramas are not really my cup of tea but everybody puts in endearing performances. While it is not a happy movie, it is a movie about seeking hope and redemption. When you are dealing with alcoholics and addicts, hope and redemption are rare. You do not always get a happy ending but they are definitely worth fighting for. This is not a happy movie but it is definitely a ride worth taking. There is also a fantastic soundtrack full of some great songs. The genres of country, rock, and pop are all well-represented. If nothing else, check out the soundtrack for a total of 19 songs.

Repo the Genetic Opera (2008)

April 20, 2019

I originally watched the first few minutes of this movie about eight years ago. I have since mostly forgotten it and I had put off watching the rest of it despite hearing that it was really good. I do vividly remember the moments when I was watching it. I was sitting in a parking lot behind the theater I worked at after driving from Baltimore to Sussex, New Jersey. I was tired and I was wondering when I would run into my boss. After being back home during the holidays and the offseason, I was anxious about getting back to work after six weeks. The dark edge to the musical mixed with that anxiety about my future. I now know that I had my very first anxiety attack. I could not continue with the movie and I could hardly sit still. I felt like crap. This was actually my second missed opportunity to see the movie after not going to the theater to see it with my little brother. This will be my third attempt and I will not lie that I have been a little anxious about it but it in a good way. My medication keeps most of my anxiety attacks at bay now.

I really wanted to watch a horror-themed musical to go with my theme of “Music” this month. Horror is one of my favorite genres and I grew up being exposed to musicals. My philosophy is that Halloween is less of a one day holiday and is more something that exists year round. Any time I am feeling down, the supernatural is always there to cheer me up or scare me out of my bad mood. As an added bonus, most horror musicals are lighter than the darker, more serious horror movies. While I watch plenty of dark horror, I really love the funnier, goofier side of Halloween better. When I first heard the premise of this one, I knew I could not really take it seriously. This is just another reason why I love the Horror genre. It often has the most out there, crazy ideas. If you are going to get your mind blown, it will not be drama or comedy that does it. Even fantasy does not usually hold a candle to the weirdest ideas horror generates.

The first awesome part of the movie is the aesthetic. The movie starts with a comic book prologue which just dumps all of the exposition quickly so the viewer can just dive into the world. That comic book exposition comes back a few times in the movie to quickly update us on what happened in the past. The reality and look of the world hits you right away as a post-apocalyptic world should. I would describe the costuming and character design as part goth, part raver, and part Blade Runner. The makeup and hair are absolutely wild and interesting. Everything is dirty and scummy like a Halloween theme park. The CGI looks cheap but it actually works for this movie as a B movie giving tribute to B movies (sort of a B+ movie, maybe). From the jump, there is a lot of gore but it is good, old-fashioned horror movie gore. The lighting also all looks like it is out of a haunted house or, more appropriately, like a theater. It is harsh in a lot of places but looks interesting.

I really liked the music in this one. It really is an opera and pretty much all of the dialogue is sung. This can be a risky proposition if the casting has not been done correctly. The first good choice they made was casting Anthony Stewart Head because any Buffy fan knows that he can sing and sing well. His solo song was when I really first got into the movie for real. Paul Sorvino plays one of the evilest corporate CEOs in history and sings operatically in a beautiful way. His children are played by Paris Hilton, Bill Moseley, and Kevin Ogilvie. They often sing horribly but I am sure they are meant to since they are all comic relief. A quick note here: Paris Hilton is not a bad singer when she is trying. Alexa PenaVega plays the movie’s protagonist, and she has a great young voice. The writer, Terrance Zdunich, plays a graverobber and it is easy to see why he was a fan favorite as he has such a beautiful voice. Sarah Brightman is probably the best singer (which probably makes sense as she is cast as a singer). Everything is backed by either electronica music or industrial guitars. The music is not very intrusive, making sure to give plenty of room to hear and understand the singing.

Overall, I loved this movie. It is really cheesy and goofy but I can see the appeal. A lot of the movie feels like the characters are in one big music video but that is an interesting aesthetic. Some of the music is not my jam but I feel like this was done on purpose for comic effect or to jar the listener. They proved that they can score the movie correctly and the good singers are really fun to listen to. The story is gruesome and dark but it has enough dark and dry comedy to keep it moving along without feeling too bad. It is definitely something worth seeing for horror and musical fans. At the same time, I can see why critics hated this movie. Also, do not be put off by the mention of Paris Hilton as she actually helped finance the movie because she believed in it and she is surprisingly talented.

(Written on 4/17/19)

Empire Records (1995)

April 5, 2019

When I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time in the Fells Point area of Baltimore. It is a historical area right by the Chesapeake Bay nestled in between Little Italy and industrial Canton. I was down there a lot because I was constantly running light and soundboards at a community theater down there. Before I could drive, I often had to wait for a ride at the end of the night and I also got dropped off early. One of the places I spent time at was a store right near the water called The Sound Garden (not to be confused with Soundgarden). I remember endlessly walking through and looking at the actual records, tapes, and CDs. At that point, I was mostly buying CDs because they were the best quality at a size I could carry in my backpack. I browsed a lot but I did purchase plenty. If I remember correctly, this was where I bought the first and second Queen Greatest Hits albums. It is also where I discovered The Who on my own terms. Most importantly, it was where I bought a Mary Prankster album which was a local band at the time and it is a band I still adore.

When I was younger, I adored record stores the same way that I adore bookstores and comic book stores. While I never liked the social aspects of in-person shopping, I love browsing. I love getting absorbed into the potential of decisions. I remember fondly a record store that was in the Rotunda which was in walking distance from the house I grew up in. I used to walk there on the same trips that I walked to the comic book store, which was a little farther. Eventually, they were in the same place. I remember specific purchases. I remember the very first album I bought with my own money on my own was an Aerosmith Greatest Hits album. I remember the clerk smiled at my purchase and recommended that I “play it loud, man”. It made me feel like an adult and a peer. Earlier than that, the first album I ever had which belonged to me was Metallica And Justice for All… and my parents graciously let me play it in the car even though it was not their scene. I remember buying a Guess Who album in Towson. When I was really little, I remember my friend buying an MC Hammer album while I bought a Vanilla Ice album. We spent time bootlegging the cassettes for each other.

When I first saw a blurb on this movie, I saw it described as High Fidelity meets You’ve Got Mail. This is all wrong. This is somebody who just skimmed the synopsis and called it a day. Sure, it has elements of those two movies but it feels like neither of those movies to me. Both of those movies are romantic comedies to varying degrees. Empire Records is definitely not a romantic comedy. There is a romantic subplot but it far from being the actual focus of the movie. If I were to pick two movies that this movie is similar to, they would be The Breakfast Club and Clerks. The movie was an ensemble piece about a bunch of kids who work at a record store and their adult boss. They have a lot of fun, they get deep, they basically go through group therapy, and they get better than they started. A lot of it felt like the famous dancing scene from The Breakfast Club. There is a lot of high energy that shifts easily between angry and happy. I really appreciated the sense of humor the movie had. Everybody is comfortable with getting silly or sarcastic and everybody looks like they are really having fun. When things get deep, it hurts but it feels so relatable.

The sort of core of the movie is the boss of the record store played by Anthony Lapaglia as the only sane adult who is happy to let the kids play because the customers have fun with it. Liv Tyler plays the perfect, book smart girl who is about to go to Harvard. I knew girls like her in high school. Renee Zellweger plays her flirty, sexy best friend and she is a lot of fun which covers up a deeper pain. There is also Johnny Whitworth who plays the dreamy artist guy. Ethan Embry plays the loveable stoner screw up that we all knew back in high school and college years (or maybe still know). Rory Cochrane plays the odd zen and existential guy who I also knew in high school. My favorite is Robin Tunney who plays the punk girl who is sick and tired of the world, kind of goth and kind of metal too. Maxwell Caulfield plays an aging new wave musician who comes to the store for a signing. There are plenty of other great small roles but those are the main important ones. I really loved this cast and each scene was basically an excuse for them all to interact and either riff with each other or have deep, meaningful conversations.

Overall, I really loved this movie. I did not expect to be writing that on this review. The movie was scene after scene of relatable white teenage drama without getting too cheesy or over the top (at least not in a bad way). The movie also felt like a lot of good stories about mental health awareness and how our friends can be dealing with stuff that we don’t see. It also has a great eclectic soundtrack which makes sense since it is set in an independent record store. For one, I never expected to hear GWAR on a soundtrack especially not one that also has the Gin Blossoms on it. The fake new wave music video is priceless. I was also pleasantly surprised by Renee Zellweger’s rock and roll singing voice.

(Written on 4/2/19)

Carousel (1956)

April 3, 2019

Rodgers and Hammerstein are obviously legends in the genre of musicals. Even people who know very little about musicals would probably recognize that combination of names. I actually had a long history in working in theater but not as much experience with musicals. I worked on musicals during high school, designing the lights for several of them. When I went to college, it was a Meisner-based conservatory which did not focus on musicals, it focused only on acting. In fact, the first musicals I actually worked on professionally were a handful of musicals done for a Girls Jewish Summer Camp as a summer job during college. Then there were two original shows done with a group called Wombworks (my first professional writing credit). Finally, I worked on five different children’s musicals up in New Jersey and one horrible show called Always Patsy Cline. And yet, I did love musicals. I was taken to musicals from a young age, either at the Mechanic Theater in my hometown of Baltimore or going on trips to Broadway. I even saw Oliver! in London’s West End when I was thirteen.

But back to Rodgers and Hammerstein, specifically. The first show that I became aware of was Oklahoma! because I was just about to enter high school and I ended up attending a performance, standing room only. I was standing against the wall, enjoying the lively music when suddenly a character drew a gun and fired it. Because of where I was standing, he was pointing it directly at me and I think the actor and I scared the crap out of each other. I once performed in a church variety show, and the show was bookended by The King and I songs “Shall We Dance?” and “Getting to Know You”, the last being a song that I first heard when I saw Addams Family Values. I also reviewed State Fair here on this blog in the summer of 2016 and I remember enjoying it even though there’s not much meat to it. Sadly, I have not seen a lot of their other musicals as my high school focused more on Rodgers and Hart and Cole Porter instead (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

Obviously, the centerpiece of a movie like this is the music. As mentioned, all of the music is by Rodgers and Hammerstein and is therefore solid all the way through. It starts with a great waltz composed by Rodgers and just keeps going from there. Part of that good music is Shirley Jones who is basically the lead of the movie (or at least she sings the most songs). She has such a down to Earth beauty inside and out and also an inner strength. She also has a great singing voice, of course. Gordon McRae is the other star of the show. He is the smooth-talking, rough around the edges love interest. He has that sort of “hep cat” performance that reminds me of the Jets in West Side Story. The music and acting are all really good and it is hard to believe that this was not a hit and remembered as a classic. Even Richard Rodgers admitted that the musical did not really produce the number of hits their other musicals did. I mean, as I have already said, there is no opening song which is a big staple of musicals. The biggest hit is “You’ll Never Walk Alone” which is the only song that I have heard elsewhere mostly from Jerry Lewis.

The story might also be a reason that the movie was not as big of a hit. Most Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals are pretty straightforward character pieces with catchy hit songs. This musical has supernatural and fantasy elements that definitely set it apart from a lot of their catalog. People probably like The King and I and Oklahoma because they want to see themselves in those situations. Mostly comical situations where life is fine and nothing is too threatening. In this movie, there is a strain of sadness throughout the whole thing and there are wistful fantasy elements. In fact, now that I think of it, this movie kind of reminds me of It’s a Wonderful Life. There is some messing around with time and life and most of the movie is just a story about life. While it is not a happy story, it is a hopeful story and I liked that. The story is mostly told in flashbacks which are an interesting way to go about it.

Overall, I liked this movie well enough. The music is mostly slow songs which are beautiful but not exactly my cup of tea. Slow songs mostly bore me and make me feel sad regardless of whether the subject matter is happy or not. There are some upbeat tunes but they feel like they are few and far between. Still, the movie is colorful and there are plenty of smiles. I can obviously see the appeal of the movie and I am glad I watched it. I wonder if it had been more famous if they cast Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland as they originally wanted to. In fact, the rumor was that Sinatra quit the production because Ava Gardner told him that if he did not fly to her in Africa, she would sleep with Clark Gable.

(Written on 3/31/19)


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