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Logan Lucky – Review

17 Sep

Steven Soderbergh has always been something of an inspiration to me. He helped start the indie craze of the 1990s with Sex, Lies, and Videotape, has made some excellent mainstream films like Ocean’s 11, dabbled in the world of surrealism with Schizopolis, and also was the creative force behind one of the most chilling television shows in recent years, The Knick. He’s a film maker that can pretty much tackle anything, even though I’ll be the first to admit he doesn’t have a spotless filmography. After taking time away from the big screen following 2013’s Side Effects, I was excited to see him return with another heist movie, this one being Logan Lucky. This has been a movie I’ve been anticipating for awhile, but I never really got my hopes up for it. After seeing it, I can say that while it’s far from Soderbergh’s best, it’s still a damn fun movie.

Sometimes it seems that certain people have all the luck, and they could really share some if they wanted to. That’s a description that is far from fitting for the Logan family. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) had a promising football career, but an accident killed that dream and left him with a limp. His brother Clyde (Adam Driver) had his fair share of luck after his time in Iraq left him with a prosthetic arm. Still, the two seem to be surviving just fine, that is until Jimmy is fired from his construction job and begins scrambling to find a way to provide for his daughter, who he still keeps in close contact with after his divorce. This prompts Jimmy to dig deep into his plans and reveal a scheme to rob the funds from the Coca-Cola 600 race, and the only time to do it is on Memorial Day, one of the biggest races of the year. In order to do this, the brothers enlist the help of local ne’er do well, Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who they have to sneak out of jail with just enough time to pull off the heist. With the old Logan bad luck facing them down, the team have to use every ounce of ingenuity to get through this unscathed.

Right off the bat, the best thing about Logan Lucky is its characters. Jimmy and Clyde are such a believable pair of brothers, and part of the reason they work so well is the chemistry and dynamic between Tatum and Driver. Channing Tatum works great as a leading man in this movie, and it’s really cool to see a down to earth, blue collar guy leading a major heist. There’s such a difference between Jimmy Logan and Danny Ocean, but both characters work great. Driver is one of my favorite elements of this movie, and every line he delivers was spot on and hilarious. Daniel Craig also goes against the mold here as the gung ho Joe Bang, and his brothers played by Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid match his level of slightly unhinged mania. It’s a motley crew of people that make such a fun ensemble cast. I also have to give a lot of credit Farrah Mackenzie, who plays Jimmy’s daughter. She is awesome in this movie and performs way better than your average child actor. I see a bright future there.

While I do really like the blue collar element of this movie, I couldn’t help but thinking this movie was lacking in what I will call the “AHA department.” This is where you watch a heist movie and you think you’re seeing everything, but there’s more going on than meets the eye. That’s a staple of modern heist movies, and it almost feels like you’re witnessing a magic trick. There’s a feeble attempt at this in Logan Lucky, but for the most part what you see is what you get. There’s nothing terribly complicated or interesting about the heist, and that’s something of a disappointment. There’s also a lot of suspension of disbelief that has to happen for this to seem credible. For some people, it’s more than can be tolerated. If someone said they had a hard time buying everything they saw in this movie, I wouldn’t argue. Even I did at times. What saved the movie for me was the level of chemistry between the characters and the depth that they each individually had. You want all of them to succeed in their own ways, and because the character are so likable, it’s possible to look past some of the glaring storytelling flaws.

What Logan Lucky did have plenty of that surprised me is humor. I knew going in that this was going to be a light hearted and fun film, but there are moments that are just downright hilarious. Adam Driver and Daniel Craig are very funny, but the real comedic stars of this one are Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson. They are just so over the top and relishing the characters they are playing. They had potential to be really annoying, but they were just the right amount of goofy. There’s also a near unrecognizable Seth MacFarlane in here as well, and his scenes were some of the highlights of the entire movie. The writing may be lacking in terms of cleverness in the heist, but it more than makes up for it with the genuine laughs it provided.

Logan Lucky isn’t Soderbergh’s best film and it isn’t the grandest return he could’ve made to the silver screen, but I will say it’s clearly a project he wanted to do. This movie has a lot of heart, a lot of humor, and a slew of great characters all bouncing off of one another. This is pure, lighthearted film making that offers up plenty of feel good energy. The actual heist could have been more creative and the third act feels a little rushed, but this was still a fun film. I doubt it’s going to make anyone’s list of best films of the year, but it’s one that may be worth checking out.

Final Grade: B

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Sideways – Review

17 Aug

I like to think of myself as a pretty open minded guy when it comes to movies. I try to soak in all sorts of films from all around the world and from different points of view. That being said, some genres just don’t impress me as much as others. I like comedies as much as the next person, but I’d much rather watch a mystery or a crime thriller. Comedies have to work really hard to win me over, and a good place to look is the work of Alexander Payne. Throughout the years, Payne has walked a thin line between comedy and drama and has garnered a lot of respect. The first movie I’ve seen of his was Nebraska, and I have to admit that I really couldn’t get into it. I’m revisiting his work with an earlier movie from 2004, Sideways, which was also met with many accolades. While I do like this one better than Nebraska, I still just don’t think his movies are for me.

Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church) have been best friends since they were room mates in college. They’ve been through various ups and downs together and, despite their efforts, haven’t really made much of an impact on the world. With Jack finally getting married, Miles sees this as a time to take him on a trip through California’s wine country where they will spend quality time together and drink a whole lot of wine. Along the way, the two come across Maya (Virginia Madsen), a waitress at one of Miles’ favorite restaurants, and they also meet Stephanie (Sandra Oh), a wine pourer at a local vineyard. Jack immediately starts an affair with Stephanie who is oblivious to the fact he’s getting married that weekend. Meanwhile, Miles becomes close with Maya, but has a hard time holding in the secret that Jack is keeping from Stephanie. This affair in the middle of wine country will force these best friends to examine who they are, what they are becoming, and how to finally feel fulfilled.

I want to go ahead and talk about what I really loved about this movie, and it has more to do with the way the characters are written than the actual story. Paul Giamatti’s character has been through a lot of terrible things, and a lot of it has to do with decisions he’s made. By the time this movie starts, he’s a broken man trying to find something special to hold onto, which is why this week long trip with his best friend means so much. Thomas Haden Church’s character is the exact opposite. He’s a loose cannon who feels like he hasn’t lived his life to the fullest, and he doesn’t realize that his bad decisions are the same things that completely ruined his friend’s outlook. It’s an interesting friendship that I don’t think has been explored this well in movies like this. I feel like Payne really fleshed out these two characters to the point where I understand their feelings without them needing to vocalize them, which is a very strong film making technique. Miles sees a lot of his past in Jack which scares him and Jack sees a potential future in Miles which also scares him. I really can’t stress enough how much I enjoyed these two characters and the depth of their connection.

The setting for this movie also really helped put me into the story. Road trip movies now seem to always go for the extreme party cities where shenanigans are bound to happen. The fact that shenanigans occur in the California wine country is certainly different. While the setting is fun and different, I can’t really say the same thing about how the story progressed. While there are things that set Sideways apart, at it’s core it still follows the same formula set down by buddy and romantic comedies. The movie didn’t really throw me any curve balls or offer me any sort of dramatic surprises, which is weird considering how deep Payne worked to make his characters seem unique but he couldn’t really do the same with his story. There are some good moments of humor that do feel very original and that helps the story from becoming too stale. While I did chuckle at the movie and laugh out loud pretty hard once, it didn’t really strike me as hilarious. I can’t help but look at Sideways as a drama more than it is a comedy.

As far as the comedy did go, Giamatti was spot on as always. This is the kind of actor that can naturally find the perfect tone for a movie and strike it without even seeming to try. I wish the same could be said for Thomas Haden Church. I can’t really tell if his character annoyed me or his performance annoyed me. He just seemed over the top at times and, while it was a good foil for Giamatti’s character, he just didn’t have the same effect on me. Virginia Madsen is good in her role although there is one scene where the writing felt a bit too unnatural. Unfortunately, Sandra Oh’s character exists solely for an affair to happen. We get glimpses into her life, but she’s never really fleshed out to her potential, unlike Madsen. For a movie that’s so focused on character development, it’s easy to notice when one of them gets next to none.

Sideways is a good movie. I don’t think anyone will say otherwise. My only thing is that it isn’t really my cup of tea. I found it easy to find flaws because it just struck me as pretentious quite often and unfortunately predictable. Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen are excellent while Thomas Haden Church has moments of brilliance but also moments of over the top annoyance. I can’t say much for Sandra Oh since she didn’t have much to really contribute. Sideways works best as an examination of friendship, aging, and trust while also being a strong character study. It doesn’t really hold up quite the same way in the narrative department. As a comedy/drama it still holds up better than many.

Final Grade: B

Filth – Review

8 Aug

One of my favorite movies of all time is Danny Boyle’s 1996 film Trainspotting, which was based on a novel of the same name by Irvine Welsh. Welsh is an author who expertly weaves pitch dark comedy with serious drama that has made a major impact on my movie watching life. In 2013, another of his novels was adapted into a film, this time starring James McAvoy and the title being Filth. I recently had the joy of watching this movie and I have to say that it’s definitely an Irvine Welsh story and it’s also a really excellent character study. It is hard not to compare it to the two Trainspotting movies, which are superior, but even though it doesn’t reach the heights of those two movies, it’s a film that’s grown on me more and more since I saw it.

Bruce Robertson (James McAvoy) is truly one of a kind. As a highly respected detective for the Edinburgh police force (in his own mind anyway), Robertson feels sure that he’s a shoe in for the big promotion to Detective Inspector. What he fails to realize however is that his massive addiction to cocaine and alcohol, combined with his highly abusive sexual behavior and bipolar disorder may really put him at odds with other people in his task force. This shouldn’t pose much of a threat however, since Robertson is a master manipulator and likes to take part in what he calls “the games,” which is really just another form of psychological abuse where he uses other people’s insecurities and weaknesses to his advantage. After a foreign exchange student is brutally murdered, Robertson is put on the case and while investigating the death is faced with some insecurities and problems of his own which sends him deeper and deeper into a psychological and drug fueled meltdown that puts himself and everyone else around him at risk.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way. There are plenty of great actors in this movie that perform very well, but the movie belongs to James McAvoy and this is clear proof that he’s one of the most charismatic and versatile actors working today. Bruce Robertson is not an easy character to tackle for so many reasons. Like Mark Renton in Trainspotting, Robertson is troubled but unlike Renton there’s no reason to put any faith in Robertson’s character. Bruce is a drug addict, thief, Machiavellian manipulator, and endorses violence on a sociopathic level. He is a villain of villains, but he’s also the star of our movie and he’s also suffering from a severe case of bipolar disorder. This is quite a handful for McAvoy. He has to portray and evil man while at the same time portraying the same man that longs for the quiet life he once had where he was surrounded by people he loved. Along with his more recent role in Split, his performance in Filth ranks as one of his best.

While Welsh has stated that Filth serves best as a commentary on the corruption of Scottish institutions, I feel like it’s best experienced as a character study. Sure, there are plenty of strong opinions about Scotland that come through in the screenplay which I’m sure are in the novel, but I have to admit that I’m pretty unfamiliar with it all. I just found a lot of joy watching Bruce Robertson completely lose his grasp on reality. This didn’t just stem from him being a monster of a character, but just because of McAvoy’s performance and also from a strong storytelling standpoint. The story of Filth is very intriguing and it’s hard to look away from it even at its most depraved, and depraved it gets. I’ll get more to the positives of that notion in a moment, but I do want to touch on the negatives. Irvine Welsh isn’t one to shy away from crude humor, and that shows in Trainspotting to spectacularly memorable results. In Filth, it’s much more hit or miss. A lot of jokes fall completely flat or just don’t feel executed properly. This is a major hit since this movie is a dark comedy over everything else. At times it just felt a little too juvenile for what the story deserves. With source material like this, easy laughs are the least important ones, and this movie does go for plenty of easy laughs along the way.

While the film does lose its footing a little bit with some of the humor, I really have to commend Jon S. Baird for taking this shockingly ugly subject material and not backing down. Adapting this story into something marketable couldn’t have been easy, but he managed to do it. Not only is Filth not afraid to live up to its title and show some truly reprehensible behavior, it manages to do so using and abundance of style and flash that helps it fit right in with the two Trainspotting films. The different lenses used for different scenes mixed with some chaotic and rhythmic editing makes Filth an achievement in film making as a craft. When the story starts to slow down or wear a little thin at some parts, Baird keeps your attention with his film making techniques. This is the kind of movie that succeeds in making you feel a certain way using its style, and it’s also the kind of movie that may make you want to take a shower after viewing.

I had pretty high expectations going into Filth, and while some areas were clearly weaker than others, it was a memorable film that left me feeling gleefully disgusted. This is a double-barrel shot to the senses and it will leave you with lingering thoughts and feelings. McAvoy is excellent as Bruce Robertson and I’m very proud of writer/director Jon S. Baird for making the film that he envisioned. This isn’t always an easy film to stomach, but I definitely recommend Filth for anyone willing to run the gauntlet.

Final Grade: B+

Return of the Living Dead Series – Review: Part II

2 Aug

The first three films in the Return of the Living Dead series work at varying degrees of success. The first film is a riot that boasted some excellent special effects, the second film overuses slapstick, but provides enough entertainment to have some fun. The third film was kind of a departure and worked with a more serious approach, which felt kind of funky at times, but I still loved the zombie action and special effects. Now we enter the world of direct-to-DVD where no one is safe and you really never know what you’re going to get. That being said, lower your expectations to the most basic settings and let’s see what these movie have to offer.

Both films were shot back to back and released in 2005, with the first being Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis.

Julian (John Keefe) knows his Uncle Charles (Peter Coyote) is into some shady business at his job in the multibillion corporation known as Hybra Tech, but he isn’t quite sure how deep down the rabbit hole he is. One day, Julian’s friend, Zeke (Elvin Dandel), injures himself in a motocross accident and is taken to the hospital but declared dead before he even arrives. Julian and his group of friends soon find out that isn’t the case and he has in fact been taken to Hybra Tech for testing and experimentation. The gang decides the best idea is to break into the company’s headquarters and rescue Zeke. While there, they find evidence that Charles and Hybra Tech has been experimenting with the deadly Trioxin gas to create zombies to use as ultra powerful bio-weapons. One thing leads to another and the experimental zombies are on the loose in Hybra Tech which forces everyone stuck inside to fight for their lives or join the undead horde.

I really don’t know where to begin here. This is one of the stupidest movies I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, and I do say it was a pleasure because I laughed out loud at the unabashed idiocy this narrative had to offer multiple times. First of all, the fact that a group of teenagers think it’s a good idea to use their extreme sport skills to break into a highly secured building is something that I can’t suspend my disbelief towards. They come up with this idea so fast and unanimously without any hesitation. They’re also really skilled with all types of firearms, which is really convenient since they’ll need all the help they can get when the zombies finally break out. Oh, right. The zombies. Yeah, it takes forever for more than two zombies at a time to be shown on screen. This is a low budget movie that went straight to DVD then to the SyFy channel, but my god, this movie drags on and on with the stupidest characters I’ve seen in a while.

There’s just so little logic used in this movie that it numbs the mind to such an excessive degree. One of these teenagers WORKS SECURITY AT HYBRA TECH. What did they think was going to happen with employees like a teenager and three other inexperienced hacks being the only line of defense for the Trioxin gas and a horde of zombies? Were the writers thinking about anything at all? When the zombies do start showing up and the action gets going, there are a few moments of fun, but how many fist fights with zombies are there gonna be? Why can the be so easily killed while the zombies in the first three films proved to be so difficult? I just have so many questions for the writers that I seriously don’t know where to begin.

I could go on and on about Return of the Living Dead: Necropolis, but I just start running myself in circles with unanswered questions about direction, acting, editing, and how this could’ve been green lit in the first place. This is one of the most hilariously sloppy films I’ve ever seen and it completely besmirches the anarchic attitude of the first three films. This is so mind numbing and senseless that I can’t recommend it to anyone. It’s good for a laugh considering how terrible it is, but do you really want to waste an hour and a half of your life that bad?

Final Grade: D-

Here we are at the last film of the series. I just want to take a moment to look back to 1985 when the first movie was released, and the impact it had on audiences looking for something to have fun with. We’ve gone from cult classic to this, and this here is the bottom of the barrel. You can just tell by the title: Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave.

A year after the events of Necropolis, Charles has the remaining Trioxin and plans to sell it to Russian Interpol agents whose job it is to destroy. Unfortunately, the Trioxin is released once again and the threat of a zombie apocalypse looms its undead head. Julian and Jenny (Jenny Mollen) find more Trioxin in Charles’ house and bring it to Cody (Cory Hardict) in the university science lab. It’s found that the Trioxin has similar elements as some hallucinogens, where Jenny’s raving DJ brother Jeremy (Cain Mihnea Manoliu) has the bright idea to try a bit of the Trioxin and sell it as a new street drug called “Z.” Much to Julian’s protests, the Trioxin is synthesized and sold to the students before the rave, and it doesn’t take long for the real effects of the gas to show. Now it’s up to Julian, his friends, a duo of bumbling Interpol agents to save the world from certain zombie doom.

This movie is the purest of garbage. It’s such an insult to what this series once was and the craft of film making in general. Let’s talk about the most glaring problem Rave to the Grave has, and there are plenty of them. I’ve never seen a movie with such a huge problem maintaining continuity. Ok, that’s not quite true. The Pink Panther movies are all over the place, but at least those films are enjoyable. This one has the audacity to name the characters the same names but completely wipe their memories of what they saw in Necropolis. Why are they surprised and completely unprepared when it comes to zombies? Why is Cody being such a jerk and fooling with Trioxin gas like he has no idea what it is? Why is Julian still living with his Uncle Charles? Is there any attempt to maintain continuity at all? I was so confused at first, not knowing if this was a sequel or what. I still don’t know, but why should I even care?

The creators of this film also try really hard to bring comedy more to the foreground with this movie and it’s an absolute failure. The comedic relief comes with the Interpol agents, but the extent of their humor comes from misunderstanding each other and shooting someone by accident while yelling “SORRY!” It’s the basest kind of comedy there is and a far cry away from the biting humor of the original film. We also just have characters that make the worst decisions of all time. Like, “We found this chemical in my uncle’s attic, so let’s synthesize it and sell it as a drug, or, “Let’s just fire our weapons in a crowd full of innocent people.” These have to be the dumbest people I’ve ever seen in a movie. I wish I could say their acting at least saved their characters a little bit, but I can’t. The acting is awful. That’s enough about that.

Return of the Living Dead: Rave to the Grave is one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some real stinkers in my time. There’s nothing funny about it, there’s nothing even remotely scary, and much like the last film it’s just plain boring. What started out as such a fun series has devolved into this, and there’s really no redeeming it at this point. This film deserves the lowest grade I can possibly give, and that’s exactly what it’s gonna get.

Final Grade: F

These last two films are a huge disappointment in an otherwise solid series. The first three films are certainly worth the time of any fan of the horror genre. These last two, however, shouldn’t even deserve to exist. There’s barely anything worthwhile in Necropolis and nothing in Rave to the Grave. Skip these two entirely.

Spider-Man: Homecoming – Review

15 Jul

It’s hard to believe that we’ve reached our 16th Marvel movie, and it’s finally one that stars my favorite superhero of all time: Spider-Man. In Captain America: Civil War, Tom Holland was introduced as Peter Parker, also known as your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. It was really exciting to see a new iteration of the character that wasn’t awful (Yes, I’m looking at you Amazing Spider-Man). Now, Holland’s back and he’s front and center in Spider-Man: Homecoming, which is one of my most anticipated movies of the year. I have to say, I love the Web Head, and this was a really good movie that’s here to kickstart his own series of stand alone films. In that way, it works really well and I can’t wait to see it again, but I can’t help but feel a little disappointed in the end result.

Peter Parker (Tom Holland) seems like a mild mannered teenager just struggling to fit in at school. His best friend, Ned (Jacob Batalon), is socially inept but lovable, but what Parker really can’t get his mind off of is Liz (Laura Harrier), the girl of his dreams who he fears he doesn’t stand a chance with. Seems like pretty normal stuff for a guy his age, but after school he also fights crime in anyway he can as the superhero, Spider-Man. He can’t seem to get too far in his crimefighting endeavors with Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) constantly on his case about his safety and how his abilities have progressed. Things get even riskier when Spidey finds out that Chitauri weaponry is being sold on the streets of New York, and the culprit is one Adrian Toomes, aka Vulture (Michael Keaton). Peter is determined to get these weapons off the street and stop Vulture, but despite his good intentions and will power he still doesn’t have the full range of his powers nor his suit, which will make this particular mission very difficult to accomplish.

I had really high hopes going into this movie just because my favorite superhero was finally getting a proper MCU treatment, but also because of all the rave reviews I was hearing about from screenings before the official release date. I don’t want anyone to misunderstand me and think I thought the movie was bad. That’s simply not the case, and I’d go so far as to say it was really good. Let’s get the negatives out of the way immediately so we can get into the good stuff later. My biggest complaint is that a lot of the story focused on Peter’s school. I understand that Spider-Man is a younger hero, especially compared to some of the other Avengers (that means you, Cap), and it is a good idea to show his interactions with kids his own age. All of the actors were very good, but it just wasn’t nearly as interesting as what was happening with Vulture and the Chitauri weapons. I’m also not thrilled when superheroes in their films don’t have full control over their powers. I know this is Spidey’s first film in the MCU and he has a lot of growing to do, but it was such a tease to see him webbing all over New York while I was thinking he was capable of so much more. I will say, however, that I’m excited to see the character evolve more in the movies to come.

Now that we got the negatives out of the way, it’s time to have some more fun. Let’s start with the cast. Tom Holland is clearly the best choice to play a young Peter Parker. He’s full of the nervous energy that defines Peter, but once you get him in that Spider-Man suit, he all attitude and brimming with that lovable arrogance that only the Web-Slinger could pull off. There’s also scenes that get pretty heavy on the drama and Holland also manages to pull those scenes off with relative ease. At this point, there really is no one else for this role. He completely owns it. Michael Keaton as Vulture was also unsurprisingly great, but what is surprising is just how well rounded Vulture was. The MCU doesn’t always have the strongest villains, especially since Loki in the first Avengers movie. Keaton gives what could be the best villain performance since Hiddleston. His character has some real depth and understandable motivation, but that motivation could have certainly been explored just a little bit more. Who surprised me the most out of the whole cast was Jacob Batalon as Ned. He had some of the funniest lines in the movie but he wasn’t there solely for comedic relief. He actually got into the adventure with Spider-Man/Peter Parker and it made his character all the better for it.

Let’s get to the action, since that’s something these movies rely so heavily on. Is the action in Homecoming fantastic? Sometimes. It definitely has its moments, but like I said before, Spidey doesn’t have complete control of his powers yet. Vulture’s suit does look awesome in these sequences though, and Jon Watts does have a good eye for directing large action set pieces, which is certainly not an easy thing to do. Adding to the pleasing aesthetics of this movie is Michael Giacchino’s excellent score that fits every piece of action, drama, and comedy perfectly. I’ve always liked Giacchino’s work and this entry into his catalogue is extra impressive. Finally, we have to take a look at how this movie fits in with the others of the MCU. Well, to put it simply, it fits very well. Tony Stark being in the movie works great, but the character that really pulled me into the world building even more was Happy. He provided some excellent comedic relief and also helped push the overall story of the MCU forward. This movie doesn’t just get me excited for more Spider-Man movies, it also gets me pumped for whatever comes next in this universe we’ve all gotten so attached to. Finally, and without spoiling anything, keep an eye out for some of Spider-Man’s most iconic villains that share some screen time with Vulture.

Spider-Man: Homecoming isn’t quite the movie I wanted it to be. It focused a lot on Peter’s high school life while I could’ve used a bit more with the villains and their evil schemes, and even some more time with Tony and Happy. This is Spider-Man’s first feature length movie in this universe, so I understand the character building, but it didn’t excite me the way I wanted it to. Luckily, Tom Holland and Michael Keaton’s performances were outstanding and the action sequences along with the music were as thrilling as they could ever be. The Wall-Crawler definitely has a good future in front of him in terms of the big screen and I can’t wait to see the next installment.

Final Grade: B+

The Return of the Living Dead Series – Review: Part 1

14 Jul

Zombie films, at this point, seem to have been done to death. There was a time however, where messing with the formula was providing audiences with some new and exciting content, and one of the most popular blends of genres just so happens to be the horror/comedy. Enter Alien screenwriter Dan O’Bannon into the mix, and you’ve got yourself a cult classic from 1985 called The Return of the Living Dead, which despite what the title will have you believe, is not related to George Romero’s series of films. It didn’t end there however, with four sequels being spawned to create a series that has lasted over a couple decades, with varying results of course. In this review, I’m going to be looking at the first three and will finish up with the last two in the second part.

Let’s kick this off with O’Bannon’s cult smash.

Freddy (Thom Matthews) is a bumbling punk kid who just got a job at a medical supply warehouse and is being trained by the equally bumbling foreman, Frank (James Karen). While trying to impress the new hire, Frank shows Freddy a container in the basement which contains a corpse and a toxic gas, which was part of an experiment that reanimated the dead and inspired George Romero to make Night of the Living Dead. After fiddling with the container, it springs a leak which released the toxic gas into the warehouse and reanimates the corpse within it. After calling their boss, Burt (Clu Gulager), to help destroy the corpse with the mortician next door, Ernie (Don Calfa), the groups actions poison the rain outside that is falling over a cemetery which causes all of the dead resting there to come back to life. Of course, a group of Freddy’s friends happen to be loitering there at the time and make a quick escape to the mortuary. From this location, the group must get innovative with their surroundings if they are to survive, but chances begin to get slimmer and slimmer as members of their party start falling victim to the zombies.

The Return of the Living Dead is a special kind of movie. It’s just the right blend of horror and comedy that is so hard to come across. Everything from the poster to the characters and even the way the zombies are design and behave just scream of a punk rock attitude, and that’s exactly what writer/director Dan O’Bannon was going for. It’s so funny to think that the mastermind behind the original Alien would go on to write and direct a movie like this. I’m not saying this is a bad movie at all, it’s just such a departure from what I’ve already seen of his work. So anyway, what this movie is is a comedy with horror elements, and boy can it be funny. What really helps the humor is that this movie takes place in a world where George Romero’s zombie films are around and just as popular. This fills the character’s heads with useless knowledge about zombies that don’t apply to these zombies in the least. In fact, the zombies from Return of the Living Dead are responsible for all the impressions of the undead that involved someone yelling “BRAAAAINS!” Even if you haven’t seen this movie, it’s reach still extends to you through the powers of cult film references that abound.

While The Return of the Living Dead holds up well as a comedy, it also has to hold up as a horror. In that respect, it also succeeds. This isn’t really a creepy movie, but more of what you’d expect from a zombie film. That’s lots of gore and some really great special effects, like on the Tarman zombie that hides in the basement of the warehouse. The other zombies also look great, with some really great make up and practical effects used to complete the illusion. I do have a couple minor complaints with the film as a whole however. For one thing, the set goes on for way too long and it really takes a while for the movie to really get going. Once it does, it’s off the walls, but I was surprised that so much time was used up in just laying the ground work of the story. A story that isn’t really that hard to understand, I might add. The ending also isn’t that spectacular. It is admittedly funny and does work with the nihilistic punk sensibilities, but it all happens way too fast and then the credits just begin to roll. Kind of an odd way to end the film, but it does leave me wanting more.

The Return of the Living Dead shouldn’t have to be compared with something like Dawn of the Dead, but it is possible. This isn’t a perfect zombie film, but it does reinvent the formula in such a way that makes it stand out from the massive amount of other works in this subgenre of horror. This is also a really funny film with a cast of faces you will probably recognize from some other cult favorites. The make up and effects are on point and the gore will leave any horror fan satisfied. If some of the pacing and storytelling issues were cleaned up, you’d have something close to being a perfect horror comedy. Even with those flaws, The Return of the Living Dead has rightfully succeeded in standing the test of time.

Final Grade: B

When The Return of the Living Dead proved to be a critical and box office success, it’s pretty easy to look back now and see that a sequel was inevitable, only this time without Dan O’Bannon. Instead, Lorimar Pictures took a script by Ken Wiederhorn and said they would fund it if he turned the story into a sequel of Return of the Living Dead. He did just that, despite wanting to get out of the horror genre, and it’s certainly weaker than the first film but it isn’t without its charms.

After a barrel of Trioxin falls off of a military transport truck and lands in the river a small town, it’s pretty clear that something very bad is going to happen. After being bullied by a group of neighborhood kids, Jesse (Michael Kenworthy), and his tormentors find the barrel and accidentally open it. Jesse was long gone at that point, but the other two kids weren’t so lucky. Meanwhile, two inept grave robbers, Joey (Thom Mathews) and Ed (James Karen), witness firsthand the dead begin to rise from their graves after a rainstorm sends the gaseous Trioxin underground. Joey and Ed soon meet up with Jesse, his sister Lucy (Marsha Dietlein), and their cable man Tom (Dana Ashbrook), who have also been slowly learning the truth about the undead crisis. With the military surrounding and barricading the town, this unlikely group of heroes have to fight for their lives against the zombies at any moment while also looking for anyway to stop this disaster before it gets any further.

The first thing I noticed about this movie is that it’s shameless about ripping off major plot points of its predecessor. If you go into this movie expecting a sequel that builds off of the events of the first film, then you’ll be let down by this movie on a major level. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a watered down retelling of the first film on a bigger scale. While the first film just took place in a very contained area, this one takes place in an entire town. This change doesn’t necessarily make for a better movie and it just makes the zombies seem stretched thinner. The first movie was tight and made it a lot harder to avoid the undead, where in this one there’s plenty of places to hide. The humor in this one is also watered down big time, which was done in order to attract a wider audience. This backfired miserably since it only made $9.2 million while the original grossed $14.2 million. The zombies in this movie are utter buffoons. This choice sacrifices the wit and anarchic attitude of the first film for zombies that fall all over each other and just meet whacky demises. I really did miss the clever dialogue and original humor that the original offered, but there were still some laughs to be had in this sequel.

I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t an entertaining movie. It definitely had its moments, and they can’t be forgotten just for the sake of railing on the film. The kid that played Jesse was actually very good and it was fun to see Thom Mathews and James Karen practically revive their roles, even though other actors probably could have been chosen. James Karen is absolutely hilarious though, and its a better movie with him in it. There’s also some really good special effects that stand up well with the effects of the original film. Return of the Living Dead Part II is a very light hearted film that relies way more on the comedy than the horror, instead of finding a balance between the two. This is a pretty bad movie, but it’s a bad movie that’s easy to like just for its absurdity and self awareness. Just don’t go into this movie expecting quality.

Final Grade: C-

Return of the Living Dead Part II was the last of the series to be released in the 1980s, and also the last to have a wide release in theaters. In 1993, Return of the Living Dead 3 was released in select theaters and admittedly has the worst box office results of the first three films. Other than financially, how well does it hold up with the others that came before it.

After stealing his father’s high class military key card, Curtis (J. Trevor Edmond) and his girlfriend, Julie (Melinda Clarke) sneak onto an army base and witness a group of scientists and officers reanimate a corpse with the Trioxin gas. Col. John Reynolds (Kent McCord), Curtis’ father, is part of the project and when it ultimately fails he is reassigned to another state, much to the devastation of Curtis. Curtis decides he isn’t going to leave and runs off with Julie, but the two get into a motorcycle accident that kills Julie. Curtis soon realizes that he still has the key card and uses it to get back onto the base to reanimate his girlfriend. As the two lovers start realizing that this new life (or afterlife in Julie’s case) isn’t going to be easy, Julie’s need for human flesh and brains causes an out of control situation of undead flesh eaters that could cause the next apocalypse if not contained quickly.

The mood of Return of the Living Dead 3 is way different from the mood of the first and second. The first film is a witty dark comedy/horror film while the sequel is mostly an exercise in slapstick. This entry totally does away with the comedy, while still retaining the sense of punk rock, even more so than the second film. I’ll get into the positives of that later, but I do want to focus on some of the not so great elements of this movie. For one thing, it’s kinda boring. Compared to the craziness of the first two, this entry is really tame. I could easily count the number of zombies in this movie and there’s never really a moment where they seemed to be overpowering anyone. Zombies work best as a horde, not a clump. We’re also meant to really buy the romance between Curtis and Julie, but Curtis is such a selfish idiot, it’s really hard to root for him in any circumstance. I ended up feeling bad for Julie having to be stuck with him and his awful ideas.

As a whole, though, this is a pretty solid movie. It isn’t anything grand, but it has some strong redeeming qualities. For one thing, and this is probably the most obvious thing to praise, Julie’s design for when she gets progressively deeper into “zombie mode,” if you will, is awesome. This make up and costume design is an under appreciated gem of the horror genre, and it’s something that needs to be revisited. This film also feels like it can stand on its own. The second film relied on the first one so much that it felt like a crutch. Return of the Living Dead 3 has its own style, mood, and storyline that is, for the most part, completely its own and unique. I also have to once again give props to the special effects department for once again showing that practical effects is the only way to successfully craft a zombie film.

As I already said, Return of the Living Dead 3 is a solid movie that does have some major flaws which will surely annoy viewer. It’s a tad boring and feels much smaller and less suspenseful than a zombie movie should. It does, however, have a cool concept to work with and it does try to make its two leads something more than just generic horror characters. This isn’t a movie that will ever be seen as a classic, but it does have some neat effects and costume design. For fans of the genre, I’d say give it a try.

Final Grade: C

So there’s the first three films in the Return of the Living Dead series and the only ones to be released in theaters. When I return with this series review, we’ll be heading back to the wonderful, yet often startlingly absurd world of direct to DVD.

Baby Driver – Review

8 Jul

It seems like I’ve been having great luck with movies recently, and the trend just keeps on going. I’ve been really looking forward to Baby Driver since I first saw the trailer for it. Writer and director Edgar Wright is best known for his Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy which consists of Shaun of the DeadHot Fuzz, and The World’s End, all starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. He was also the director of Simon Pegg’s and Jessica Stevenson’s cult tv show Spaced. This looked like a bit of a departure from what he normally does, but it also looked like it still had that frenetic yet controlled style he employs. Let’s just say Baby Driver takes everything great about Wright’s work and enhances it to whole new levels to create one of the greatest action films you’ll see all year.

Despite getting into an accident as a child, losing both his parents, and suffering from a permanent “hum in the drum” as a result, Baby (Ansel Elgort) is the best escape driver in the entire underworld. Doc (Kevin Spacey), a major thief in the criminal underworld, is lucky to have him on as a permanent member of the team, despite other employees finding his constant state of listening to music and lack of any kind of vocal interaction unnerving. After one particular job goes wrong, Baby finds some comfort in an unassuming waitress named Debora (Lily James). Their relationship seems to be growing fast, but Baby is soon coerced back into the business by Doc and forced onto a crew consisting of his long time partners Buddy (Jon Hamm) and his wifeDarling (Eiza González), but also the sadistic Bats (Jamie Foxx), who threatens everything Baby stands for just for the hell of it. With this job closing in, Baby starts making plans to betray the team and make his escape with Debora, but it won’t be easy to escape the eyes of his brothers in arms and he’ll have to fight them with everything he’s got to truly escape.

Baby Driver is a lot of things. It’s a drama, it’s a dark comedy, it’s a gangster flick, it’s a heist movie, but more than anything else it’s an action film. This movie has more energy than any action movie I’ve seen in a long time and you can tell that everything that Edgar Wright is as an artist and a film maker went in to making this movie as great as it possibly can be. The car chases and various escape sequences are exhilarating, and the fact that the stunt work and various crashes and last ditch escapes were done in camera and not using computer generated effects makes the whole experience all the more worthwhile. The first car chase had me hooked, but the ride was far from being over and it just got more exciting from there. This is a good time to bring the editing up. If this film doesn’t get recognized for its editing at the Oscars, then I really don’t know what I’ll do. Wright puts this entire film to Baby’s various soundtracks, and when I say that every scene moves in time with the music, it’s no exaggeration. The best way to describe this film would be to use the word “precision.” We’ve all had that conversation about what song would work in what kind of scene. Well Edgar Wright and his team took that idea to the limit and created a whole new way to watch a movie.

With movies like Baby Driver that immediately combust with such high energy, it’s usually inevitable that the middle of the movie will slow down to an almost unbearable crawl for characters and other kinds of motivations to be built on. Somehow, someway, Edgar Wright found the perfect formula to expedite this whole process while still making it easy to care about the characters. Jamie Foxx’s character is introduced somewhere around the end of the first act and beginning of the second act which doesn’t slow the movie down even a little bit. In fact, Foxx is so excellent in his performance of Bats that the movie found another burst of energy with his arrival. Time is also given to Ansel Elgort and Lily James and their budding romance. This is where the movie stumbles ever so slightly. The tough guy talk didn’t need to carry over from the crime scenes to the romance scenes. It just didn’t fit very well and the attitude was just a little bit to much in these moments. If it was toned down a little more I think these scenes would have hit the mark a little bit better. When the third act begins, however, all mistakes are forgotten and my eyes were glued to the screen while the action never ceased to let up.

I feel like there’s something of a stigma around action movies that say films in this genre can rarely be called works of art. Much like horror films as of late, there’s been a cool trend of more artistic action films, and Baby Driver falls firmly into that place. Wright and his team know how to make a film look great and sound great while also thrilling audiences with off the wall action sequences and entertaining characters. When the lights came up in the theater, it was almost hard to finds words to properly elucidate the originality and technique of the film I just watched. Edgar Wright isn’t just a good film maker. He’s clearly an excellent one and an auteur in his own right. I’ve been taught by many people that film is a visual art, where the story should be shown more than it should be told. This movie takes it another step and uses music to help tell its story in a way I haven’t seen in a movie before. When music isn’t playing, it felt weird. This was a risky thing to do. It would be very easy to mess up a movie where music is constantly playing, but this one pulled it off with such finesse.

In case I haven’t made my point perfectly clear already, Baby Driver was fantastic and easily is and will remain one of the best movies of the year. It’s action is shot beautifully with excellent stunt work and precision driving, the soundtrack knocks the second Guardians movie into next week, and the editing is some of the best I’ve seen in years. This takes action films somewhere new and unique, even though the story is less than totally unheard of. I can’t say this film is style over substance, because the two work tandem so well. It would be a sin to miss this movie, so get to it as soon as you can.

Final Grade: A+