Friday, July 24, 2015

Apollo 13 (1995)

Introduction:
I admit it, I don’t often give Ron Howard the director his due. The man made some really entertaining movies and handled some impressive and large-scale films. While he doesn’t have a distinctive visual style, his movies are always well crafted and often entertain. But one of my favorites has to be this glimpse into an incident that occurring during the Apollo moon missions that I never heard about… until this movie came out. Way to got high school history!

Summary:
Astronaut Jim Lovell (Tom Hanks) is finally going to go to the moon. With Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) at his side, they are going to make the Apollo 13 mission of 1970 one to remember. Little do they know that is going to be infamous instead of famous.

During their approach toward the moon, alarms go off followed by a horrifying sound and shaking of the module. The astronauts spring into action and find that technical and mechanical problems abound. Their oxygen is fading fast and key components of the ship are damaged beyond repair. Forget going to the moon, these three men have to worry about being able to get back to Earth. Luckily mission control has Gene Kranz (Ed Harris) and Ken Mattingly (Gary Sinise) on deck to help them out. But as the hours go by and the peril increases, the world waits to see if the Apollo 13 mission will be a tragic loss or a heroic victory.

Good Points:
  • Howard captures the look of the era very well
  • The film does a wonderful job building tension and anxiety
  • The amazing cast does a fine job brining the movie to life

Bad Points:
  • No surprises here if you know about this historical event
  • Lacks some of the artistry of something like The Right Stuff
  • Tom Hanks is in it… one of 1 million movies he made in the 1990s

Overall:
Just about everything in this movie works. It builds up anticipation for the Apollo 13 mission and allows you get to know the main characters. Then it puts them in peril and doesn’t let up until the final few minutes of the movie. It is a wonderful exercise in tension and suspense. But more than that, it shows how dangerous space travel was (and still is) and how it takes a huge team of people to pull off these amazing journeys. Visually the film holds up remarkably well, and despite a rather workmanlike approach to the material, this is one of Ron Howard’s best films.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 5
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5

Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.   

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Flesh + Blood (1985)

Introduction:
So we had that bit of fantasy film explosion in the 1980s. Movies like Excalibur and Beastmaster were exciting folks and getting them interested in seeing more sword and sorcery adventures. Well director Paul Verhoeven felt that those movies were missing out on the real fun elements of the middle ages: bloody impulsive violence, raping, pillaging and plague. He decided to rectify that with a movie that put the middle ages into perspective, and no this isn’t like something you’d see at a ren faire. No, it is a Paul Verhoeven film, and that should tell you just what you are in for.

Summary:
Martin (Rutger Hauer) leads a merry band of mercenaries who loves nothing more than killing, looting, and raping. They are guided by the experienced wit of Hawkwood (Jack Thompson), and are hired by the Lord Arnolfini (Fernando Hilbeck) to reclaim his walled town. After Martin and his band achieve victory Arnolfini decides he doesn’t want to pay Martin and is group for their hard work.  He uses Hawkwood to turn the tables on Martin and the group leaves the battle without a coin or a wench.

Meanwhile, Steven (Tom Burlinson), son of the Lord is about to meet his betrothed, Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Steven is a clever young man who fancies himself the next Divinci when it comes to mechanics and construction. But he is not a fighter. So when Agnes is kidnapped by Martin and his crew, Steven must go to Hawkwood for aid. While they come up with a plan and attempt to hunt Martin down, the mercenaries have their way with Agnes. But she uses her charms and wits to get into their good graces. Has Agnes fallen for her rough and ready bad boy, or is she secretly waiting for Steven to save her? The fate of all will be told in the meeting of Flesh + Blood. Ronald Lacey, Brion James and Bruno Kirby round out the cast.

Good Points:
  • Some impressive medieval production design and visuals
  • The action set pieces are well filmed and memorable
  • A bold and explosive musical score by Basil Poledouris

Bad Points:
  • So heavy on the gore and sex that you could call it exploitative
  • American accents in medieval European film may distract some viewers
  • Those looking for some sorcery with the sword will be disappointed

Overall:
Verhoeven makes an in your face aggressive and exploitative historical adventure film. Martin and his crew are real mercenaries, and brutes on top of it. But the nobles are just as bad with the horrible way they treat just about everyone including their own family. Not a likable character in the bunch, but the film moves at a great pace with lots of energy. While going for a more realistic view of the late middle ages, it also manages to comment on the power of religious faith (and how it can be abused) and the futility of striving against the brutality of humans. A solid film if you have the stomach for it.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 3
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Score Sample: 3:10 To Yuma

I realized I haven't written to much about composer Marco Beltrami. He is one of the most gifted film composers in the current crop. Beltrami studied with Jerry Goldsmith, which may explain why his scores appeal to me. His style is different, but he uses similar approaches and techniques when scoring films.

Beltrami got his big break composing the score for Scream, and has gone on to work on several horror films ever since. But Beltrami is very versatile and actually some of my favorite work by him is not in the horror genre. He came on board for the western 3:10 To Yuma in 2007 and created a modern take on Morricone's spaghetti western style. The score is a real treat, with a nice dark edge to it and some unique instrumentation. The score actually got him an academy award nomination. This is a piece called Bible Study that comes from the ending of the film.


Tuesday, July 7, 2015

New Nightmare (1994)

Introduction:
When it comes to the Nightmare on Elm Street series, most folks agree, the ones directed by Wes Craven were the best. Well for the longest time, I had never seen Freddy’s swan song. Hell, I hadn’t seen much more than the first film. But I digress. Netflix finally revealed the 1994 finale for the series (at last as far as Mr. Craven was concerned). I kinda knew what to expect. I’d seen a little bit of the film nearly a decade before. But was I really ready for more Freddy?

Summary:
Heather Langenkamp (played by Heather Langenkamp of all people) has been trying to put her role in the Nightmare on Elm Street series behind her. But no one wants Freddy to die. Not the fans. Not the studio. And seemingly not Wes Craven (played by Wes Craven of all people!) So news of a new, and FINAL Freddy film quickly begin to spread. But with them come the nightmares.

You see Heather had to deal with horrible nightmares during her filming of the original film. It seems that Freddy’s power to twist dreams is not fictional, and that Craven actually tapped into something powerful. As Freddy’s fame grows, especially with children, his nightmarish power grows too. Soon Heather finds herself at the center of a supernatural plot that will allow Freddy to become flesh and may cost not just her soul, but the soul of her son as well. This is one New Nightmare no one will ever wake up from.

Good Points:
  • Gets back to the roots of the concept by making Freddy scary again
  • Twists reality, dreams and the world of making films together
  • Heather Langenkamp gives an excellent and challenging performance

Bad Points:
  • Those looking for fun and wisecracking Freddy will be disappointed
  • Feels like it owes quite a bit to Candyman
  • This movie is so self aware that its ton may rub viewers the wrong way

Overall:
In so many ways this feels like a prototype for Scream. It is a movie that knows it is a movie, and yet it also focuses on delivering thrills and dread. I like that Craven had some real balls to go in this direction, and it is fairly successful. This is mostly due to Lagenkamp’s excellent performance. She is literally in every scene of this film and carries its emotional weight. This is a less campy and overt entry, more adult in it’s approach. But also very snarky at times. I got a kick out of the meta approach, but some people may not like it. An unusual ending I don’t think anyone saw coming.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 4
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total:  4


In Depth Review

Don't tell mom the babysitter is about to die.
In 1991 we got a movie called Freddy’s Dead: The Final Nightmare. But horror fans weren’t fooled. If we learned anything after a decade of slasher films, it is that the killer cannot be killed, even if you put “final” in the title. So no matter how dead they killed Freddy in 1991, New Line studio wasn’t going to let that be the last word.

What is surprising is that they went to Wes Craven for that last word. Craven had been pretty vocal about his dislike of the sequels following his 1984 original A Nightmare on Elm Street. But with a ten-year anniversary coming up, it seemed like the perfect time for Craven to put the final stamp on the series... wait I just said final, so this can’t be the last one either.

New Nightmare is essentially a commentary on the phenomenon around Freddy Krueger as well as a legitimate horror film. It works on both levels, something that must have been very difficult to conceive as well as execute. But Craven was given enough latitude to make it all work. The final result is certainly one of the best entries in the series, and yet one that relies on the fact that you’ve seen the previous films and are aware of just how HUGE Freddy Krueger had become as an entertainment personality.

As a horror film, Craven gets back to basics. Much like A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare goes for a slow build. Jump scares and creepy moments occur in the first half of the film, but we never get a good look at the killer. In fact Freddy is not really seen clearly until about three quarters of the way into the movie. Instead New Nightmare focuses on the mystery that links the script Wes Craven is writing with the actual events happening to Lagenkamp. This keeps Lagenkamp and the viewers off center. We never know if what we are seeing is actually happening, or if it is a dream, or if Lagenkamp has just gone insane.

Heather faces Freddy in a hellish nightmare.
That unknown element is what builds the tension and dread in the film. This is not a movie about creative kills and over the top antics by Freddy. This is about a woman who is in very real danger, but she is unable to determine where that danger is coming from. Is it coming from a real supernatural being? Or is it a product of her mind?

Lagenkamp’s performance is the key to making this work. If we don’t believe that she is in danger, or believe that she is doubting herself, the horror can’t crystallize. Luckily Lagenkamp is up for it. Her character goes through the ringer in this movie. There are moments where she looks completely terrified by events around her, especially that fear of losing her mind. By making her son, Dylan (Miko Hughes), the focal point it also adds an additional element - the possibility that she may harm her son even if Freddy doesn’t. I wonder if the creator of The Babadook has seen this film?

As you can see for this description, we have something a bit more psychological and deep than the previous few films in the series. Craven is obviously trying to turn this back into horror that grips the mind, and by expanding Freddy into something bigger, a entity that is defined by the horror it inspires, he tries to literally create a New Nightmare.

Lagenkamp's performance makes this movie work.
It’s serious stuff, but this series has always had some humor in it (often of the pitch black variety). Craven uses the structure to create the humor. Instead of this being a traditional Nightmare on Elm Street film, it is about the making of a Nightmare on Elm Street film. Craven, Lagenkamp, and Robert Englund play themselves. There are some very funny moments where they acknowledge faults in the previous films, or use the fact that the previous movies were “just movies” to their advantage. This film is very meta, and is certainly a prototype for the same style of humor that Craven used in the Scream series.

But what is missing is the sarcastic, in your face, and jovial performance by Englund as Freddy. With each film, Freddy had become more and more of a disturbing jester than a serious menace. His creative kills often accompanied by a silly pun or witty quip. Freddy became the star of the series. Something that was just admitted in 1991 when the movie’s title doesn’t’ even contain “Elm street” in it, but does make sure to mention Freddy. At this point everyone was going to see “the latest Freddy movie”, and that included kids.

I think Craven went out of his way to pull that whole thing back. Freddy was his creation and one that was supposed to generate screams, not guffaws. By limiting the screen time Freddy has, and by turning him into something even more primal Craven hoped to return his icon to its original and terrifying vision. They even redesigned Freddy’s look in this film, making him look more like a monster and less like a man.

That is not a glove, but his actual hand!
Does Craven succeed? Well, reviews are mixed. Freddy was insanely popular because he was funny, and because he was over the top with his kills. Viewers wanted to see the outrageous murders and funny one-liners. They didn’t care about gaggle of teens that were killed – they wanted Freddy. Craven wasn’t going to deliver that, and so for a lot of folks this movie just doesn’t work.

But if you look at New Nightmare another way, and see that Craven was trying to give Freddy a last hurrah as a horror icon, it makes sense. He tried to keep the balance of humor and horror, but made the humor less obvious and more observational. He tried to ratchet up the terror from simple gory (but admittedly creative) kills, to more disturbing and visceral attacks building on tension and anxiety. I appreciate what he was trying to do, and I think he was mostly successful. But in the end, some of the meta elements may be too clever for their own good.


If you know what kind of Freddy fan you are, then I think you’ll be able to figure out if you’ll enjoy this film or not. I think it is a very creative movie and one of the best written and executed of the bunch. But it is a darker film (even with it’s satire) and less fun. In any case, it is well worth seeing once, just to observe how Craven went about trying to reinvent his baby.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Nostalgia Nugget: Movie Music of James Horner

In the 1980s you had three masters of film music. John Williams gave us Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark. Jerry Goldsmith was on hand for Gremlins, First Blood and Poltergeist. And then you had James Horner, the youngest of the three.  Man, did he have a run of hits in the 80s: Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan, Cocoon, Aliens, An American Tail, Willow and Glory. That was just the start of a career that would hit dizzying heights with Titanic and Avatar.

Horner has a signature sound - immediately recognizable. He was firmly rooted in classical style, often working with lush sweeping melodies and bombastic action music. But his style made him a divisive figure among film score fans. He often borrowed (or was heavily inspired if you prefer) by classical composers particularly the more romantic Russian ones. But this is hardly a unique fault. All film composers who work in a primarily orchestral style often gain inspiration from classical pieces.

I think the bigger issue for most film score fans was Horner’s tendency to borrow heavily from himself. The main theme from Glory (which is familiar to fans of a certain Russian composer) turns up again in Avatar with almost no changes. Khan’s wild theme turns up again as evil queen Bavmorda’s theme in Willow and that gets abbreviated down to what film score fans call Horner’s danger motif. And that sucker appears in nearly all of Horner’s film scores at some point. Some listeners find this annoying. Others find it like listening to one giant symphony filled with familiar traits and moments.

One thing no once can accuse James Horner of being is emotionally cold in his music. Of the big three 80s composers Horner was the most unabashed when letting the music just swell and take over. His romantic moments were passionate. His sad moments were devastating. His horror moments were terrifying. And while he could work subtly, most of us film score fans loved his ability and skill of going for broke and touching the listener and the viewer with his music.

One of my favorite scores by Horner, Glory shows off this skill so well. He runs the gamut of emotions in that score and nails each and every one of them. It’s a powerful score, one of my favorites from the 1980s.

And for me, that is where Horner’s best music resides, in the 1980s. The stretch form Battle Beyond the Stars to The Rocketeer (technically 1991, but has his 80s trademarks all over it) is filled with nostalgic memories.

When it came to the early 80s, I lost two of my favorite fictional characters. Han Solo was frozen in 1980 (and I was pretty convinced he was dead), and then Spock died in 1982. Horner’s score for the moving death scene and finale to Star Trek II make those moments resonate. As a kid I didn’t’ have a chance and was pretty shook up over the death of Spock.

The main themes to Krull and Battle Beyond the Stars were both lodged in my brain after viewing them over and over in my youth. But Horner’s gift of melody kept them there for nearly a decade long after I had forgotten all about the films. So when I revisited these two movies in the 90s, a huge wave of nostalgia kicked in based on the title music alone.

My sister was a huge fan of An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Those films had regular play on the VCR. Horner did some fine work for these animated films and hearing those scores takes me back to memories of watching these with my sister and plush versions of the main characters.

The soundtrack to Glory was one of the very first CDs my family owned (along with the Prince song compilation for Batman). We all noticed the music during the film and hearing it on CD was a real treat.

But it was Willow that had the biggest impact for me. In 1988, I had just started collecting soundtracks on cassette tape. I had two Star Wars scores, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Conan the Barbarian. After seeing Willow in the theater, I wanted that score. Hell, I thought John Williams composed it. I searched and searched for that score and I could never find it.

As the years passed, I would pick up the search off and on again. Even making it a regular goal when I hit the music section at Borders in the 1990s. I actually saw the CD, once in a Music Plus store, but I didn’t have any money on me (and this was before I had a credit card). I rushed to the ATM to pick up some cash and by the time I returned, Willow had vacated the premises. It became a holy grail of scores for me. And it wasn’t until 2007 that I finally added that score to my collection!

James Horner’s sudden death has shocked all us film score fans. His music,, so powerful and emotional, really touched people. Many folks are saying that it was Horner’s music that got them into film score collecting, or writing music, or inspiring them in other ways. It is a testament to his skill and the power of the medium that his music has such an impact.

Horner was a unique voice in the film music world. No one else’s music sounded like his did. Few approached films with such naked emotions. And in the current mindset of Hollywood studios, Horner’s approach was frowned on. His output had slowed over the years. But it made each new score a real treat when it did come along. For me, I will always enjoy his work, and enjoy the nostalgic memories those themes bring back.

Four of my favorite James Horner cues:

Genesis Countdown – Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan



Escape from the Tavern – Willow



Closing Credits – Glory




Rocketeer to the Rescue/End Titles – the Rocketeer


Friday, June 19, 2015

Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Introduction:
When I revisted this film recently, I was struck by one thing – there is no way it could be green lit by any major studio in this day and age. If you read my summary below, and realize that the only “star” is a comedian who has about five minutes of screen time, and a concept so dumb it just can’t possibly work. It is not a sure bet at all. Hell, it wasn’t a sure bet in 1988 either, but it got made and we now have some the best catchphrases of the 1980s.

Summary:
Bill (Alex Winter) and Ted (Keanu Reeves) are in a most heinous situation. They are about to fail their high school history class, and if that happens they fail school! Ted will be shipped off to military school and Bill will most likely end up hanging out with Spicoli from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Before that can happen a telephone booth (remember those) from the future arrives carrying George Carlin. No, it really does.

Carlin plays Rufus a man who has seen the most excellent future that Bill and Ted create – but only if they stay together to form their band Wyld Stallyns. To ensure they are kept together, they must pass the history class. To do that Rufus gives them the telephone booth/time machine to travel into the past. Bill And Ted go along with this and are soon meeting Napoleon, Billy the Kid, Socrates, Genghis Khan and Joan of Arc! Of course shenanigans ensue and you end up with historical figures running around the San Dimas mall, Napoleon on a waterslide and Abraham Lincoln telling everyone to “Be excellent to each other.” Prepare yourself for a real blast from the past (and the 1980s) with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

Good Points:
  • Embraces the silliness of the concept and keeps things fun
  • Winter and Reeves are a great comic duo
  • Snappy writing leads to some very quotable lines
Bad Points:
  • Looking for a serious examination of time travel – uh, go watch Primer instead
  • Looking for historical accuracy – uh, go watch the History chann… wait that won’t work either
  • This movie is as dumb as its protagonists 
Overall:
But you could argue that fact. Much like Bill and Ted themselves, the movie is actually a bit smarter than it lets on. Some of the humor is silly, but there are also some solid satirical jabs at 80s society. But the thing that works is the spirit of fun and comedic chemistry of the leads. These guys are likable goofballs who get a lucky break but actually grow up a little because of it. For me, this is one of the classic comedies (and adventures) of the 1980s. Well worth seeing or revisiting.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 4
Sound: 3
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  4


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

Introduction:
I tend to give American animation the short shrift on this blog. But that doesn’t mean I don’t admire it. Pixar has made some genuine classics, and Dreamworks has given us a couple really fun and exciting films. In fact I reviewed How to Train Your Dragon for DVD Verdict and really enjoyed it. I was looking forward to seeing where the crew could take the story for the sequel, and if the quality would match the 2010 original.

Summary:
Things have changed a bit since we last joined the Vikings on the island of Berk. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now exploring the wide world with his dragon companion Toothless. During one of his adventures he runs into a group of men who are actually hunting dragons and capturing them for an overlord calling himself Drago (Djimon Hounsou). These men claim that Drago can tame and control any dragon and is slowly taking over the world with his dragon army.

Hiccup and Toothless attempt to warn the people of Berk but along the way they run into another group of dragons! This group is lead by the mysterious Valka (Cate Blanchett) who actually knows who Hiccup is, and has a history with his father Stoick (Gerard Butler). Will the combined forces of Berk’s dragon riding teens and Valka’s dragons be enough to stop the onslaught?

Good Points:
  • Aging all the characters giving them more depth
  • Feels like a natural thematic and story follow-up to the original
  • An amazing musical score by John Powell

Bad Points:
  • Some of the freshness has worn of the concept and characters
  • A few of the plot twists won’t be a surprise
  • If you didn’t like the previous entry, you probably won’t like this one

Overall:
But honestly, how could you not find something to enjoy about the previous film. This sequel is exactly what you want it to be. It builds on the characters, world and themes of the original. It gives us new characters and settings to visually dazzle. It adds some gravitas to the plot with older characters and more of a coming of age reckoning for Hiccup. It also retains its amazing visual splendor and wonderful music. Fans of the original will be very happy with this film.

Scores (out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 5
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 5
Total:  5


Curious about a full review, sent me an email and I’ll make additional thoughts to this review.