Saturday, February 23, 2013

My Favorite Era: Blade Runner (1982)

Sometimes it takes a while for a really good movie to find its audience and be appreciated.  In the case of Blade Runner, it was generally appreciated for the most part after flopping in 1982 but it wasn't until Ridley Scott released a director''s cut in 1992 that the film was seen as it was intended.  Scott made further enhancements for the 2007 release and it stands today as one of the best science fiction films of the 80's.  It's also one of the most influential as pretty much every sci-fi film since has taken at least one or two cues from the film, mostly in terms of production design.

Harrison Ford is Deckard, a Los Angeles cop in the year 2019 whose job is to hunt down renegade androids known as "replicants".  He ends up falling for one played by Sean Young and the majority of the film has him chasing down three replicants in true film noir fashion.

That's the basic version of the plot.  It's Harrison against Rutger Hauer, Brion James, Daryl Hannah and Joanna Cassidy with Sean Young as a troubled replicant who Ford falls for.  What's awesome about the film is how Ridley Scott takes a pretty basic story and, by creating a fascinating futuristic world for the characters to inhabit, makes it seem brilliantly original.

Performances are uniformly excellent across the board.  Ford is solid as usual, giving a nice low key performance that is appropriately laconic given the genre.  The replicants are good as well with Rutger Hauer really standing out as the leader, Roy Batty.  Hauer has always been a pretty good actor but here he gives depth to a character whose essential purpose is to have no depth or personality.  That's a pretty tall order but the man pulls it off quite well.

The supporting cast is awesome as well with good support from Young and Edward James Olmos.  There are also great minor roles for character actors M. Emmett Walsh and James Hong.  Always a good sign in my book.  Really, the entire cast is good here.  In fact, there are just too many great moments to list, considering I want this to be a blog post rather than a short novel.

With a stellar cast and production design, really the only way to adequately critique this film is to compare the different versions of which the Blu-Ray set supplies five: The Final Cut, the U.S. theatrical cut, the international cut, the 1992 director's cut and a work print version.  Since the work print isn't really a fair representation of the movie and the international version only adds a few extra seconds of violence, I'll briefly review the remaining three.

The 1982 release is pretty good, though compromised by a horrible narration from Ford that the studio made Scott use.  Ford wasn't too thrilled about it and it shows as he just drones on about stuff that's rather obvious if you take the time to actually focus on the film.  Still, it's a testament to the man;s skill that he can clearly, vocally not give a damn and still be entertaining.  Apart from that, the story is just as it always has been with good acting and amazing production values.  There are a few small flaws here and there but those get sorted out in subsequent cuts.

The 1992 cut drops the narration and adds a tantalizing dream sequence that opens up the question of Deckard possibly being a replicant.  It also disposes of the cheesy happy ending and replaces the rather dark ending Scott wanted to begin with.  It serves the film much better and fits the tone.

The 2007 cut is easily the definitive cut of the film.  Some f/x shots have been fixed, the rather obvious stunt double used when Joanna Cassidy is killed has been re-done and the overall look of the movie is just more seamless than ever before.

Blade Runner is still one of the most influential movie ever made.  It's fascinating to re-watch, looks amazing and is a damn fine piece of noir filmmaking.  I'd say grab the Blu-ray...quickly.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

My Favorite Era: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

And here is where Wes Craven not only hit it out of the ballpark but out of the whole damn galaxy.  A Nightmare on Elm Street is one of the most fiendishly clever slasher films I have ever seen with an iconic villain and some genuinely scary moments that still send a shiver up my spine to this day.  The background on the film is easily accessible elsewhere (to say nothing of being more intelligently written than anything I could cobble together) so let's take a look.
  • Just a quick note about the studio logo, as much as I like the film reel logo New Line used for all those years, the logo here just works better for the film. Gritty and grimy fits the movie much better.
  •  From the opening sequence, you know you're in for something good.  Just something about the glove being put together is just great as a mood setter.  Having it segue right into Tina's (Amanda Wyss) nightmare makes it work even better.
  • What I really love is how thoughtfully Craven wrote the characters.  He gives us interesting, likable characters you really don't want to see get slashed to bits and even the adults are relatively well drawn.  For a slasher movie, that's bordering on miraculous.
  • Of course, we do get some obligatory stupidity from a few parents but with Nancy's mother (Ronee Blakely) it's because she's a drunk with a guilty conscience.  Even the parents of the Depp character, while pretty bad, are nothing like what we get in the sequels.  It helps that John Saxon is a good actor who can actually add dimension to the usual cop role.
  • Back to the teens, all four of them are good (you gotta love a movie where a young Johnny Depp gets sucked into his bed and mulched) but I really need to single out Heather Langenkamp who is one of the best Final Girls in slasher movie history.  As Nancy, she is smart, tough and resourceful but not so much that you forget the character is just a kid.
  • The sequence with Tina dreaming and eventually getting killed is just creepy as hell with Freddy appearing in the wall over Nancy before terrorizing poor Tina and his first appearance with unnaturally long arms.  It's a real tour de force and Craven directs it perfectly.  While his films can be sort of hit and miss, when he's on he's really on.
  • Freddy is at his scariest here, remaining in the shadows for the most part so you never really see exactly what he looks like.  Add in a bit of vocal enhancement to Robert Englund's great performance and it's easy to see why he became such an icon.  I also like David Miller's makeup for the character.  You don't really see that much, just enough to give you the willies.
  • There are just too many iconic moments to mention:  The tongue phone scene, Depp's bloody demise, the bathtub scene, all of these are horror classics.  I especially get a kick out of the creepy bit where Nancy dreams that she sees Tina's bloody corpse in a body bag right outside her classroom.  Damn!
  • Nancy's showdown with Freddy at the end is great as well.  It just plain works on all levels.  Heck, I even like the shock ending, even if it was tacked on.
A Nightmare on Elm Street is a genuine classic of horror cinema.  With a smart script, expert direction and an iconic villain, it still stands as an eminently watchable spook fest.  Hell, even the sequels are worth checking out, with the exception of that awful remake from a few years ago.  Quite simply, this movie rocks.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

My Favorite Era: Swamp Thing (1982)

When it comes to favorites from my childhood, Swamp Thing is right up there.  I'm pretty sure from 1985 to about the early 90's, I must have seen this at least twenty times...Mainly because KTLA tended to throw it out there on Saturday around 6 in the evening at least once a month.  Wes Craven directs this adaptation of the DC Comics character and I have to say, it's the best darn horror/action/sci-fi superhero monster movie you will ever see.

We've got monsters, a modest amount of mayhem, Louis Jourdan and Adrienne Barbeau.  Let's take a closer look.
  •  One thing I really enjoy about Craven's direction is how he subtly frames things like comic book panels using wipe cuts.  Contrast that with the hugely disappointing 2003 Hulk movie where Ang Lee went overboard with the idea, making something that just looked goofy.  I know which of the two films I'd throw on in a heartbeat!
  • I also dig how Craven immerses the viewer in the swamp from the very start.  It's a very atmospheric way to start a comic book movie.
  • A philosophical thought: the world would be a much better place if all government agents looked like Alice Cable (Adrienne Barbeau).  Not sure why the hell she got dressed up in a nice (for the early 80's) business suit and high heels to go off into the swamp but there you go.
  • The score by Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini is also pretty enjoyable.
  • There have been lots of intimidating names for villainous henchmen:  Darth Vader, Darth Maul, I'm sure there's at least one film out there where the bad guy has a henchman named Goodkiller.  This one?  We get David Hess from Craven's The Last House on the Left as a guy named Ferret.  Well, can't win em' all.
  • Actually to be fair, he's not that bad a henchman and Nicholas Clay is also fun as his sidekick Bruno but when you're putting them up against a really huge plant guy...it loses a little something.
  • Ray Wise is quite likable as Alec Holland, our soon to be looking a little green around the gills hero.
  • This is one of the few times in a comic book movie where I don't mind the origin story taking up a good portion of the film (about the first twenty five minutes or so here).  While heroes like Batman and Superman are well known to the point where a five minute sequence at the start is fine, Swamp Thing is a little more obscure so you do sort of need to get the full tour.
  • Louis Jourdan as Dr. Arcane is one of my favorite 80's villains.  Jourdan is a really good, classy French actor who found himself, as so many European actors tend to, playing villain parts in American action movies.  He'd team up the next year with Steven Berkoff (another guy I enjoy) for the James Bond thriller Octopussy and here, he's just wonderfully slimy.
  • In addition to being stunningly beautiful, Barbeau also gets to kick a decent amount of butt in the first third of this film.  Granted, not as much in the rest of the film but still!
  • Love the fire gag that ensues when Alec gets doused with his growth formula and explodes in flames.  I hope the stunt guy who did that was paid really, really, really, really well.
  • The Swamp Thing suit Bill Munns designed is pretty damn good, though it was quite difficult to maintain during shooting and I can't imagine stuntman Dick Durock had a good time in it.  Still, it works pretty well and is a very good depiction of the character.  It's obviously a guy in a suit but that just adds to the charm.
  • Another thing Durock does well is acting the part of Holland, now transformed.  He's actually quite good in the more quiet dramatic scenes with Cable and later when confronted by Arcane.
  • Reggie Batts pulls off a miracle and delivers a comic relief kid sidekick who is not only not obnoxious, but actually pretty damn funny.  He just has a deadpan delivery that works way better than it has any right to.  Damn shame the sequel didn't have that.
  • Craven  does pretty well with the action scenes.  Nothing overly spectacular but they're decent enough.
  • Ah, the days before PG-13, when you could have a henchman, like Ferret for instance, get his head gruesomely crushed after hacking Swamp Thing's arm off with a machete and still score a PG rating!.
  • You could also get away with seeing Adrienne Barbeau's breasts and still score that rating.  God, I love the 80's!
  • Being that this is an early 80's monster movie, there are some really good transformation effects.  Bruno goes through a rather painful one and at the end, Arcane is impressively turned into...something. I don't know what it's supposed to be but since the serum Holland was doused with makes a person more of what they already are (in the first third he tells Cable he feels like a tree sometimes), I'm going with what would happen if a wild boar screwed an alligator.
Swamp Thing is a fast paced, enjoyable romp that may not achieve greatness but it does manage the noble feat of providing an entertaining 90 minutes that doesn't overstay its welcome.

Friday, February 8, 2013

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996)

First off, sorry for the delay, things have been a little hectic.  With that, on with the show!

 Oh man, if only this beauty had been made two years earlier, it would be a natural for the My Favorite Era series!  If 2007's Grindhouse was considered the ultimate pairing of the twin titans that are Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, From Dusk Till Dawn is the blueprint for it, and in my opinion it's about ten times better.

George Clooney and Tarantino are Seth and Richie Gecko, two wanted fugitives who want to make it across the border from Texas to Mexico.  After a virtuoso opening sequence in which they end up torching a liquor store, they eventually end up abducting former preacher Jacob (Harvey Keitel) and his two kids, one of whom is played by Juliette Lewis.

They make it across but end up in hot water when the bar they decide to spend a few hours at while waiting to get picked up turns out to be chock full of vampires.  Words cannot describe how wonderfully this little twist works but I will try.

From Dusk Till Dawn is a fantastic blending of two of the best indie directors of the 90's.  Tarantino's dynamic script melds with Rodriguez's enthusiastic shooting style quite well as the first forty five minutes play out like a Reservoir Dogs type crime flick.  As soon as they get to the bar though,  (wonderfully named The Titty Twister) we are thrown headlong into Robert Rodriguez territory as Cheech  Marin and Danny Trejo show up (Cheech has three roles here and is just awesome in all three) and best of all, Salma Hayek puts in a brief yet memorable turn as the sultry queen of the vampires.

The bar is also full of great horror/exploitation film cameos as Tom Savini and Fred Williamson have fairly large supporting roles and KNB head honcho Greg Nicotero has a small role as a bar patron.  The mayhem begins about an hour in as the bar employees reveal their true vampiric nature and the film turns into a great survival horror film as the our heroes try to survive the night.

 Acting is damn good all around with Clooney and Keitel doing the best.  Lewis is fine (one of the few times I've actually enjoyed her in a movie) and Savini and Williamson make for a funny duo.  I especially love that from out of nowhere, Savini gets a kung-fu sequence where he takes on some vampires.  Salma is also good, though truthfully all she has to do is dance a little and look sexy.  Not exactly a challenge for her.

On the technical side, the f/x are great with some great KNB stuff.  I think my favorite is the giant rat-thing Savini turns into after he;ls bitten and his head is ripped off.  I also love the sound mix which is quite nicely detailed for a low budget flick.

From Dusk Till Dawn is a fast, funny, gory thrill that still works today.  I recommend tracking down the two disc DVD set from 2000, it's got a great set of extras.

About Me

I've been a huge fan of action, horror and comedy for as long as I can remember.