Halloween Scene: The Frighteners (1996)

the frightenersI want to say I saw Peter Jackson’s The Frighteners starring Michael J. Fox at some point in high school, but I can’t quite remember. I do remember seeing a special somewhere about how they did the ghost-wall special effects, but that’s about all I could recall. So, when I saw it on Netflix, and since I’ve been in the mood to watch movies I’ve seen only once before, I figured it would be a fun watch. It turned out to be strangely timely too considering I’ve been enjoying The Michael J. Fox Show and I just watched Jeffrey Combs in Re-Animator very recently.

The film itself follows the exploits of Fox’s Frank Bannister, a man who can actually see and talk to ghosts. Instead of using this power for good, though, he uses it — and the ghosts — to trick people out of their money. Basically, he sets up a haunting and then gets paid to get rid of the ghosts who simply ride back with him in his crappy car. In the course of a normal swindle, Frank becomes aware that there’s a hooded, Grim Reaper-looking figure killing people and ghosts. Frank and a recent widow become embroiled in this battle and the crook has to become the hero.

I haven’t been this conflicted about a film in a while, you guys.

One one hand, I love the plot of this film and was completely surprised by the twist at the end. I’m still not sure how or if it makes sense, but it made for good drama. Plus, Fox and his main co-star Trini Alvarado were a lot of fun to watch. I’m a long-time fan of MJF and love him in just about anything, but it’s also cool seeing him in kind of a broken down, action hero role. I can’t say that’s something I’m used to and it was a nice change. For the most part, the rest of the cast really got into their roles, I thought Dee Wallace and Julianna McCarthy really dug into their characters as the daughter and mother Bradley.

On the other hand, two elements of this film that keep it from being a true, timeless classic: the tone and some bad-by-today’s-standards CGI. While Fox and Alvarado play the whole thing straight, most of the ghosts seem like cartoon characters. This gives the film a kind of Beetlejuice vibe (as does the Danny Elfman score). And I think that would have worked well…but then Combs’ Milton Dammers shows up. If you thought Combs was intense in Re-Animator, you ain’t seen nothing yet. He’s a government agent who had been deep undercover with some cults and is now completely out of his mind. Oh, he also can’t stand when women scream at him. He’s just so over the top and bonkers that he’s nearly impossible to take seriously and definitely took me out of the film.

The bad CGI will probably take more people out of it, especially younger viewers. I’m sure they were great at the time, but everything just looks fake. That coming-out-of-the-wall thing just doesn’t work. The hooded villain is completely rendered in CGI and sometimes almost looks like an unnatural beast, but mostly looks like old CGI. This becomes most evident in scenes that include ghosts (who look like they were shot normally and then tinted blue) and the villain who is completely CGIed. The actors are doing their best, but it sometimes look like they’re just getting attacked my an ancient screensaver. The worst part is that some of the poorly CGIed scenes probably could have been done practically to better effect. I’d sacrifice some of the Reaper’s animal-like movements for a villain that actually looks real.

And yet, I fell in love with the characters and really appreciated the story so I’m giving this a thumbs-up with a “but.” I don’t see this ever happening, but I would put The Frighteners at the top of the list of films to get update with modern CGI. I have no idea how these things work, but I just kept imagining how much better the whole thing would come off with a more polished and update set of visual graphics. I think with better looking effects, it might balance out the parts of my brain that don’t like how all-over-the-place the tone gets.

Book Vs. Movie: I, Robot

Man, I, Robot is bad. I’m speaking of the 2004 movie starring Will Smith and directed by Alex Proyas, not the book which I liked even if it had a few flaws, as I talked about already. It’s kind of funny that my big complaint about the short stories by Isaac Asimov that make up the book were based on characterization because that was my biggest problem with the filmed version. Even funnier is that the film couldn’t nail the character of Dr. Susan Calvin who could be summed up in a few words: cold, calculating scientist. Bridget Moynahan’s interpretation of the character loses her cool so early on that she essentially becomes the damsel in distress, which is about as boring of a character as you can get.

The real problem with the movie is Will Smith. He’s ridiculously annoying in the movie as robot-hating cop Del Spooner (what a terrible name) as he spouts off awful dialog like “You have so got to die.” That kind of stuff works for younger actors, but Smith was roughly 34 when he shot this movie. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Will Smith hater. I loved Fresh Prince, Independence Day and the Bad Boys flicks, but I, Robot smacks of an older actor not understanding what he’s really good at. One-liners aside, he’s just a generally unlikable character and doesn’t really give us much to latch onto aside from having a bummer of an experience that lost him an arm and resulted in the death of a little girl. Boo hoo, you don’t have to be a dick to everyone.

Smith and Moynahan aside, I really liked the rest of the cast. Bruce Greenwood, Chi McBride, Shia LaBeouf, James Cromwell and Alan Tudyk providing the voice and mannerisms for suspected murdering robot Sonny all do a great job, but even their greatness can’t make the two stars actually shine. In fact, their goodness really highlights how bad Smith and Moynahan are.

I guess I should talk about the plot. Cromwell plays a scientist who was supposedly murdered by robot Sonny. Smith’s on the case, but everyone, including his boss McBride, thinks he’s crazy because of the Three Laws of Robotics. Unconvinced, Smith keeps pushing which leads him to Greenwood’s robot-making company U.S. Robotics which employs Moynahan. As he keeps investigating, Smith uncovers a group of robots ready willing and able to hurt humans. The script was originally written as a completely different story, but got reformatted first to fit in with the Asimov mythology and then again for Smith specifically. I’d be curious to see how the original script compared and how many supposedly awesome moments added in by that last revision.

I don’t want this review to be completely negative, though. I found the movie to be generally boring and not super interesting, but there were some interesting moments. The overall plot was interesting and could have been, but wasn’t, set in Asimov’s world. Effects-wise, Sonny looks kind of amazing and when the robots fight each other, they don’t seem like people in robot suits fighting. On the other hand, the CGI doesn’t look great when too many robots are together. The one on one robot fight towards the end looked great, but the big battle at the storage units just seemed too fake.

You’ll notice I’m not complaining about how far away from Asimov’s book the movie is, most notably that it’s set on an Earth that has robots walking around (they were banned from being used on Earth in the books). I can understand not being able to make a movie based on the entire book. It would have been crazy expensive, though according to Wikipedia Harlan Ellison tried in the late 70s. Deemed too costly, the movie was shelved but the script was eventually published as I, Robot: The Illustrated Screenplay in 1994. I definitely want to check that out. I even like the idea of making a movie that would fit in with Asimov’s stories even if it didn’t directly draw from one of the actual stories, but that’s not what this is. Maybe someone with vision and some clout will come along and work their magic. I won’t be holding by breath.


Nerdy Double Feature: Spring Break (1983) & Revenge of the Nerds III The Next Generation (1993)

That’s just a delightfully weird movie poster isn’t it? I remember seeing this box at the video store back when they still rented videos and I was a kid. It seemed pretty scandalous at the time and I probably thought it was about shrinking kids or monstrously huge women. Now, I know that it’s a simple spring break comedy directed by Sean S. Cunningham, the man who birthed the Jason franchise. I’ll admit, my curiosity was piqued as I’d never seen a non-horror film by the man and I appreciate when directors have the ability to bounce between genres.

I kind of loved this movie with all its unexpected weirdness. The story follows these two nerdy guys heady to spring break who want to let loose and meet women, even though the one kid’s step dad is a politician and wants him to not cause trouble. That’s pretty normal enough, but then two other guys from NYC show up (one carrying a potted plant for some reason) and they end up being in the same room. You think it’s going to turn into an “us vs. them” movie between the nerds and the cooler guys, but instead they join forces and become friends!

Even though you’d assume a movie like this would seem like the prototypical spring break movie, it offered up a lot of surprises and uniqueness that I really liked. Though, something was nagging me while watching it. The plot started feeling familiar, especially the political parent involvement. It wasn’t until talk to Rickey later that he reminded me of the lame straight-to-DVD movie Spring Breakdown starring Parker Posey, Amy Poehler and Rachel Dratch which seems to have stolen a fair number of plot points from this flick. Not cool, especially considering no credit is given.

Spring Break is a fantastically fun movie that I recommend to anyone looking for a fun, upbeat movie to watch this Labor Day weekend. Spring, summer, what’s the difference?

Up next on my nerdy double feature was Revenge of the Nerds III: The Next Generation, an installment of the four-part epic I’d never seen before. I am a gigantic fan of the first movie and it’s message of being yourself. Damn, I feel all pumped up every time I watch it! Anyway, this third installment was…interesting. It’s 1993 and Adams College has been taken over by nerds, which drives some mean old Alpha Beta alumn to hatch a plan to get Stan Gable (the quarterback from the original movie) put in place as the dean to get the power back in the bully AB hands. Somehow it works. We also get introduced to a new generation of nerds, specifically Harold, the nephew of Lewis from the original (he played by Gregg Binkley who played Kenny on My Name Is Earl). As it turns out, Lewis has turned into a yuppie douche who stifles that signature laugh of his and has a douchey ponytail even though he’s happily married to Betty (the girl he banged dressed as Darth Vader in the original). It’s your typical “fallen hero” story and, I know this sounds stupid, but it made me MAD to see him like that.

Anyway, the movie’s got some fun nods to early 90s geekery like the current students laughing at the tech their predecessors had and the doorbell of the TriLamb house playing the Super Mario 3 music (I geeked out pretty hard at that).

This might sound weird, but I wish the movie had taken itself a little bit more seriously. The young nerds do a good job as do most of the returning actors and characters, the real problem lies in the character of the older alumn and some of the directing choices which just goes way over the top into cartoon territory at times. His scenes take you out of the story, which is too bad because otherwise this could have been a really solid made for TV sequel. Still worth checking out if you’re a fan of the series, though, especially with the awesome musical numbers (nowhere near as good as the originals, but still fun, especially the early 90s rap. Fun stuff.

UPDATE: I forgot, Clancy Brown has a small role as a gas station attendant, check it out!

Anyone Else Watch Human Target?

Human Target is the kind of show that’s always been right up my alley. First off, it’s based on a comic book. Second, it’s got a great cast in the form of Mark Valley who I’ve enjoyed in Boston Public and Fringe, Chi McBride who was great in Waiting and Pushing Daisies and Rorschach himself, Jackie Earle Haley. And third, it’s a seemingly straightforward action show that probably won’t be too involved like a Lost or Fringe.

I’ve never actually read a Human Target comic, but I’m a longtime supporter of shows based on comics regardless of my familiarity with the concept. The basic concept is that Christopher Chance (Valley) works as a bodyguard who puts himself in harm’s way so his clients don’t get killed. He works with McBride who, I think, is the brains behind the operations, and Haley who is the tech guy. At least that’s what I caught from an episode last night called “Rewind.”

It was a pretty solid, though somewhat obvious episode. A hacker discovered a skeleton key for the entire internet and somebody wanted that hacker killed. Someone was flying the hacker somewhere on a public plane, but no one knows what the hacker looks like and someone else on the plane wants to kill the hacker. Okay, SPOILER time, the hacker’s a woman, hence my annoying lack of pronouns in the previous paragraph. I’m not sure who wanted to keep her safe and who was trying to kill her, but the story was told in a non-linear fashion that worked well for the episode. They kind of pulled the same trick with the stewardess who helped Chance put out a fire in the bottom of the plane–by flipping the thing upside down!–turned out to be one of the killers as well. A girl!?

This isn’t mind blowing television by any means, but I was entertained and will probably tune in again assuming it’s not up against anything else I really like. It actually kind of reminded me of all those crazy 90s syndicated shows you’d catch on Saturday and Sunday afternoons like MANTIS or VIPER, but with a better budget. Anyone else watch the show? Thoughts?

Still Waiting…for a good follow up to Waiting

Back before I moved out here in 2005, I went with a couple of my friends who also worked at the Bagel Place (which has since been demolished and rebuilt as something…very different)to see Waiting… starring Ryan Reynolds, Justin Long and Anna Faris. It’s basically a look at a day in the life (though a crazy one) at Shenaniganz, an Applebees-like restaurant. Even though it wasn’t the same kind of restaurant we worked in we could totally relate to hating jerk-hole customers, relating to each other and playing games to make the day go by quicker (though, they didn’t involve balls).

Anyway, I’m a big fan of the movie. I worked with a lot of people during my 7-ish years at the bagel shop just like the people in the movie. Plus it had the above mentioned actors along with John Francis Daley who, like everyone else, I loved in Freaks and Geeks and a bunch of other actors I would eventually come to know and love like Chi McBride, Luis Guzman, Vanessa Lengies (yeah, I like Stick It, deal with it) and even Dane Cook who I like much better as a comedian, but whatever.

I actually get the itch to watch the DVD every time we eat at one of those TGIFriday’s-type (that’s can’t be the way to write that), though I usually don’t ’cause, you know, I’ve got a lot of other stuff to watch. Anyway, when I heard that the sequel, Still Waiting… came out I was cautiously interested. I put it at the top of my Netflix queue and got it the other day.

Well…

It’s not a good movie. The guy who’s supposed to be the Ryan Reynolds-type character just isn’t as good of an actor and can’t play off the lovable jerk character (also, making him kinda racist probably wasn’t the best choice). Overall, the characters just aren’t as real or interesting as the ones written in the original (even the few recurring characters), which is strange because, as far as I can tell, it’s the same guy who wrote the original (Rob McKittrick who also directed that one, but not this one).

I can’t say I’m disappointed or surprised because, hey, it’s a straight-to-DVD sequel to a movie that didn’t do all that well in the first place. I did appreciate the fact that Justin Long popped up in a cameo. Uh, I guess the following counts as a SPOILER, if you care. I like that he came back for this movie, but I’m not sure if I like the scene, where he basically tells the bartender that his life still ended up shitty after quitting at the end of the first movie. He sure gives a hilarious performance though and I was actually thinking “It’d be interesting to write a movie that starts where movies like Waiting and Empire Records end, with the guy leaving his dead end job and seeing how well they actually do with that” and then that essentially happened.

Oh well, I’ve still got the original, which is still rad, so who cares? Anyone else see it or even want to?