Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Die Hard with a Vengeance (1995)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (7.5).

This film was... not as good as the original. The characterization is weaker, the story is weaker, the action goes for spectacle over realism, and we have to put up with Samuel L. Jackson playing a painfully un-self-aware Angry Black Man stereotype as co-protagonist alongside Bruce Willis. (His mildly racist exterior inevitably cracks so that he can learn the True Meaning of Friendship With White People.) That said, the movie is still more intelligent than the average action flick, and it doesn't deliberately treat the viewers as morons. Overall, it has enough fun bits to make it worth a watch. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Die Hard (1988)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (8.3).

I'd somehow managed to reach adulthood via the 80's and 90's without ever seeing any of the Die Hard films. Knowing little except for the poor reputation of the fourth installment, I began with rather low expectations. Fairly quickly, I found myself rather pleasantly surprised: it's far more intelligent than your average guns-akimbo 80's action flick, and it isn't willing to casually throw realism out the window for the sake of Rule of Cool. In fact, it seems to take a certain delight in slamming the characters, both heroes and villains, against brick-hard reality whenever it gets the chance. Overall, I have a hard time thinking of anything I didn't like about the film, which is not something I can frequently say about an action flick. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Top Gun (1986)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.6).

Believe it or not, I just saw Top Gun for the first time last night (despite having grown up in the 80's). The film is a high-adrenaline, cliché-riddled, occasionally silly military recruitment piece... that still manages to be pretty fun to watch. And, hey, Tom Cruise before he went crazy. The film is doubly entertaining if you take Quentin Tarantino's advice and watch it for the gigantic, flashing-neon homoerotic subtext. (In my social circle, the phrase "gayer than the volleyball scene in Top Gun" has been lifted from 30 Rock and become legendary in its own right.) Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Once Upon A Time In China (1991)

Links: TVTropesWikipedia, IMDB (7.3).

This period drama is set in late-1800s China — an era when the traditions of Imperial China were fading fast, the Opium Wars with Britain were a fresh and painful memory, and exploitation by European and American foreigners was at its peak.  The movie centers around a chivalrous kung fu master and apothecary (Jet Li) and his Robin Hood band of quasi-illegal peacekeeping vigilantes; they clash with both the corrupt government (with British puppetmasters) and a local gang of thugs (with criminal American benefactors).  The movie starts off rather disjoint, as it attempts to establish nearly all the characters by overwhelming the audience with a rapid flood of scenes, but once the movie calms down and starts revealing its plot it becomes much more watchable.  At times cloyingly nostalgic, but in the end rejects the possibility that things can remain the same.  Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Friday, May 14, 2010

A Nightmare on Elm Street (film series)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia.

This supernatural slasher series benefits from the genre-establishing slasher films that came before it: the series began in 1984, when rival Friday the 13th was already four films in. Unlike its more mundane cousins, the supernatural element allowed the series to retain legitimate credibility as a horror franchise for far longer than one would otherwise expect, even after the inevitable descent into camp and self-awareness. The films, while of varying quality, average well above what Friday the 13th could consistently produce, and the series is far more dedicated to internal continuity than one might expect for films about a serial-killing nightmare bogeyman. Interestingly, in contrast to the Friday the 13th series (whose moral message is "avoid booze, pot, and premarital sex"), the Nightmare on Elm Street films mostly focus on children abandoned by their absent or dysfunctional parents.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, 7.4)
The film drags a bit in the middle and feels like it's not quite fully fleshed out from an idea into a film. That said, it's quite watchable, much better than the first entry in the Friday the 13th series, and ends up being a fairly reasonable start for the series. The film ends up being the keystone on which the later films successfully build. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge (1985, 4.9)
Uh, wow, this one was out of left field. This one abandons everything built up by the previous movie, switches from nightmares to possession, and has a not-very-subtle, not-very-gay-friendly homoerotic subtext that ends up being more coherent than the textual plot of the film. It's not very surprising that later films refused to acknowledge that this film's plot ever happened... although a few of the later films grudgingly used scenes from it in their montages. Score: 0 stars out of 4, and my pity.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987, 6.3)
Easily the best film in the series. The film uses Nancy, protagonist of the first film and now an adult, to explicitly create continuity with the new cast (to great effect). It also successfully ratchets up the action by giving the protagonists more awareness of the situation, upping the stakes and giving the audience new hopes... to eventually dash, of course, when building up the climax. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 4: The Dream Master (1988, 5.2)
This film felt like a "me too": it felt like it was trying too hard to emulate the secret sauce of the previous film. That said, it wasn't even remotely a bad film, and actually manages to be pretty decent. The ending even manages to approach "epic" territory. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child (1989, 4.7)
A noticeable decline in the series, yet still enjoyable. The creative minds behind this film were obviously desperate for a plot to keep the cash cow mooing, with Freddy's backstory reaching new heights of camp, yet the result is far more watchable than it has any right to be. Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Freddy's Dead: The Final Nightmare (1991, 4.6)
Aaand the series dies. This film goes off the rails from the first scene onward, then proceeds to kill any seriousness left in the franchise and performs unspeakable acts on the corpse. It even has an obligatory sequence involving 3D glasses. But... it's still better than the second film. Score: 1 star out of 4.

Wes Craven's New Nightmare (1994, 6.3)
Ah, the meta-film, where the characters are themselves actors making a movie, but the inner movie breaks the fourth wall and becomes real. The film essentially re-creates the original film, going so far as to use many of the same cast members and have them play themselves in the present (i.e. 10 years later). It then re-does several of the kills from the original, but with a bigger effects budget and less camp. Because this was before the Scream franchise, the concept was actually quite fresh, and the result was actually quite good. The movie also stands well on its own; at most, you might want to see the original film so you can see the callbacks. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Friday the 13th (film series)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia.

The series, while retaining the "slasher film" concept throughout, can be roughly separated into two distinct groups: the early films are "campfire story" slashers (where Jason is implied to be a deformed loner psycho man-child), while the later films are "supernatural serial killer" slashers (where Jason is implied to be some sort of ghoul or super-zombie). Very few of the films have any merit as actual horror movies; only the first film makes a noteworthy attempt. But most of the films have entertainment value for the comedically gruesome deaths, starring Jason as the Villain Protagonist, and some of the films have merit as outright comedies. The films are perhaps best enjoyed by watching while performing one or more of the activities that get the "protagonists" killed (i.e. partaking of alcohol, pot, and premarital sex).

Friday the 13th (1980, 6.3)
The film is an early member of the slasher film genre, predating Nightmare on Elm Street by 4 years, and as such it's pretty dated. But it's fairly watchable, does a decent job of building tension, and has a small but nice twist as it builds to the climax. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Friday the 13th Part 2 (1981, 5.6)
Yawn. This film is noticeably more dull than the previous one and has very few redeeming qualities. That said, it's not unwatchably bad. Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Friday the 13th Part III (1982, 5.1)
Ugh. For a very long time, this would be the worst film in the series. Notable for being the first (and last) film in the series to be released in 3D, with exactly as much "theme park" camerawork as you might imagine from a film trying to cash in on the 3D revival of the late 70s and early 80s. Trivia: first movie where Jason acquires the iconic hockey mask. Score: 1 star out of 4.

Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984, 5.3)
A surprising buck of the trend, this film suddenly leaps into "solidly watchable" territory. This is the first film that seems to revel in self-awareness of its audience, and as such it has far more humor than the previous entries. TVTropes calls it "a So Bad Its Good teen comedy that morphs into a So Cool Its Awesome horror movie".Trivia: this introduces Tommy Jarvis, the most likable hero in the series, and starts his protagonist arc. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

Friday the 13th: A New Beginning (1985, 4.1)
I have mixed feelings about this. Plot-wise, this movie is dumb, dumb, dumb, and completely pointless with regard to the rest of the series. However, this movie further refines the self-aware humor of the previous film and actually spends a lot of time trying to make the audience laugh. Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives (1986, 5.3)
Best film of the series, full stop. The self-aware humor of the previous two entries is refined to perfection, with most of the cast playing genre-savvy deadpan snarkers. In addition to concluding the Tommy Jarvis arc, this film also marks the point in the series where Jason becomes explicitly supernatural. Trivia: includes the musical talents of Alice Cooper, who created songs just for this movie. Score: 4 stars out of 4.

Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood (1988, 4.7)
A decline from the heights of the 6th installment, but still halfway decent. Introduces Tina the Psychic Girl, who surprisingly did not have a protagonist arc of her own but instead was confined to one movie. I've heard contradicting claims that this movie was either (a) salvaged from an early "Freddy vs. Jason" script, or (b) written as a stopgap or lead-in for such a movie. Either way, Tina would have been a natural protagonist for such a film as she's a more natural genre fit for Nightmare on Elm Street than she is in this series. Score: 2 stars out of 4.

Friday the 13th Part VIII: Jason Takes Manhattan (1989, 3.9)
Every bit as horrible as it sounds. Score: negative 4 stars, a repair bill for breaking my scale, and my everlasting hate.

Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday (1993, 4.1)
This film marks the sale of the series from Paramount to New Line Cinema, the latter being the home of Nightmare on Elm Street. This sale was presumably in anticipation of a "Freddy vs. Jason" film, but the rights to the "Friday the 13th" name slipped between the couch cushions in the transition. The film itself is quite bad, but not unwatchable. The first 10 minutes or so capture the precise flavor of "awesome" sought and treasured by 14 year old boys, but the rest of the film is a complete miss with its out of left field plot elements and the addition of bizarrely creepy pseudo-sexual gore. (Worst, they nonetheless fail to reach David Cronenberg heights, so what's the point?) Score: 1 star out of 4.

Jason X (2002, 4.4)
Also known as "Jason... IN SPACE!" A sudden return to self-aware humor, to the extent that it works as a solid sci-fi comedy. The film includes some delicious mockery of the earlier films, a wonderfully snarky sense of humor, and some So Bad It's Good action sequences, some of which can be found on YouTube. Unfortunately the latter part of the movie is bogged down by pacing problems, but by my reckoning it's nonetheless the second-best film in the series. Score: 3 stars out of 4.

House of the Devil (2009)

Links: Wikipedia, IMDB (6.5).

The concept is "nostalgic 1980s satanic ritual abuse".  For the first third of the film, the movie is patting itself on the back for how carefully it reconstructs the trappings of the target era.  After the "plot" begins, it became so dull I couldn't finish watching it.  From what my friends described of the ending, it followed one of the exactly two paths I had imagined for it.  Sigh.  Score: 1 star out of 4.

Paranormal Activity (2007)

Links: TVTropes, Wikipedia, IMDB (6.6).

Paranormal Activity, a horror movie on a shoestring budget, left me with mixed feelings.  On one hand, it was fairly watchable and a pretty decent execution of the concept (young couple with a camcorder in a haunted house).  On the other hand, the movie utterly failed to engage me: the plot was only driven forward by Micah holding the Idiot Ball, and it invokes almost every "haunted house" and "spooky séance" cliché out there.  The tension building is also excruciatingly slow; the movie could have been effectively done in half the running time.  Score: 2 stars out of 4.