TBT: The Descent (2006)

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There is no shortage of horrors I could have/might have gone with here. But I decided to ultimately pick something a bit more. . .random out of the hat, as I think more obvious choices like Halloween, or Psycho, or even Friday the 13th would be a little more difficult to say something original about. I turned instead to a film that really, really gave me the heebie-jeebies on the first viewing. As someone who loves rock climbing, it’s pretty ironic that caving (or ‘spelunking,’ if you want to get technical) is terrifying to me. Much like people who are averse to scaling heights outdoors, dropping one’s self into dark, cramped spaces beneath the surface of the earth seems like such a bad idea. I wonder if that in any way might be related to my experience with 

Today’s food for thought: The Descent.

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Descending into chaos since: August 4, 2006

[DVD]

Few horrors have managed to consistently thrill me the way writer/director Neil Marshall’s impossibly claustrophobic tale of a cave-diving trip gone awry has. Time and again, the heady vibrations of the blood-soaked, tenebrous The Descent leave me exhausted come the end, and in a genre where first impressions are critical I find it unusual to exit a film on the tenth go-around in such a manner. It’s like watching it for the very first time again. . .and again.

I feed off of adrenaline, and certain installments offer a mainline shot of it. This chaotic and brutal journey into what might reasonably be described as hell has been like taking one to the carotid. For the uninitiated: a group of young outdoor enthusiasts reunite a year after a tragic car accident involving some of their friends and decide to get a secluded cabin in the backwoods of North Carolina. On their itinerary is an exploration of a massive cave system close by. Of course, things don’t go according to plan and they are left fighting for survival when they find living creatures inside the tunnels. What begins as a routine exploration ends in an epic battle for the surface when they realize the inhabitants don’t take kindly to visitors.

In a refreshing twist, the group’s presented as an all-female cast determined to not be pinned down by the horror tropes of yesterday. (Hooray for climbing/rappeling gear!) Juno (Natalie Mendoza), Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), Beth (Alex Reid), Sam (MyAnna Buring), Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) and the most recent addition to the group, Holly (Nora-Jane Noone), are all given sufficient, if not wholly original introductions. It’s not likely you’ll remember these names after watching but what’s more memorable is the tension between them even before the film dives into the deep end.

The Descent has been most successful in drawing upon the decay of its hopelessly confusing confines. The labyrinthine setting forever remains frighteningly unique — a character unto itself — and Marshall even took the time to stuff it full with plenty of gruesome surprises. (I’m left wondering how many films have been based upon the amazing Carlsbad Caverns?) The Descent has earned a reputation from the speed with which an innocent day trip transitions into a situation darker than the stuff of nightmares. Marshall is less concerned with the minutiae of spelunking in all its spectacular danger in the same way he’s not as bothered with bringing out award-worthy performances from his relatively unknown cast. What comes front-and-center in this wonderfully under-lit production is emotion, energy, a need to survive.

If this all sounds rather familiar, it should. Less familiar is the effectiveness of the atmosphere. You’d never guess this was filmed in the comforts of the Pinewood Studios near London. Or, you know. Maybe you might. You might’ve naturally assumed that filming within an actual cave is simply too dangerous and/or impractical to achieve the desired effect. (Or you could have been perusing Wikipedia, like I just was. . .) Either way, the bloodcurdling screams echoing off these walls have this tendency to trick the mind into thinking we are where we really aren’t. The lack of light, the pools of blood. The pickax and the neck. The crevasses. Interpersonal tensions resulting from last year’s car accident boiling over at the worst times. All of this adds up to a stressful experience that’s difficult to put into the back of one’s mind.

The Descent doesn’t exactly escape unscathed, as its gender-uniform cast at times struggles to reach the gravitas necessary to sell the moment. There are the usual jump-scares lurking around many a dripping stalactite that pass by rather forgettably. There are cringe-worthy lines sprinkled in here and there. Fortunately these issues constitute a small enough percentage of the run time to not overwhelm.

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3-5

Recommendation: There are many aspects to this spelunking expedition that are likely to turn many outdoors-oriented types away. Personally, I find the exhibition of passion for the outdoors often goofily exaggerated in films — not even Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours is immune — as if the industry feels it ought to confront those who don’t quite ‘get’ what it’s like to be an adventurous, outdoors type. But to get caught up in frivolous details like that is to overlook the pure adrenaline rush and psychological torment that the film provides. The Descent is taut, exciting, bloody and brutal and if those are the requirements you would list for a good horror, you should avoid this film no more.

Rated: 

Running Time: 99 mins. 

TBTrivia: This film had a working title of ‘Chicks with Picks’ during production. That conjures up an entirely different image now, doesn’t it?

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

John Wick

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Release: Friday, October 24, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Derek Kolstad

Directed by: Chad Stehelski; David Leitch

John Wick is yet another Keanu Reeves vehicle that operates much like an actual one would sans the steering wheel: basic things like moving straight ahead are possible but trying something fancy like taking a left-hand turn renders the driving clumsy and crashing into your mailbox more than just a possibility.

The metaphor’s more appropriate than I originally intended, for the man’s focus has seemingly shifted away from scantily-clad gothic chicks to slick and shiny muscle cars. No longer is there a need to dodge bullets when you can just hop into your Shelby GT-500 and drive away into the sunset and escape them in a more traditional manner.

This bullet-riddled, blood-stained adrenaline rush is less of a shot of adrenaline than it is a rush(-ed opportunity) to make Keanu appealing to a new generation. It’s pretty cool he’s being repurposed as a new kind of mainstream hero as this Equalizer-esque enigma who sticks to the shadows. And that he is making an apparent “return,” though it’s not all that clear where exactly it is that he went to. Have we forgotten Keanu, or something? That he is “back” is a slight misnomer as the sea of tired genre tropes rises to swallow his spirit yet again.

John Wick is long on killing and short on chilling. It’s “kick ass now and worry about the logistics (and physics) of it later. Or never.” While some may prefer it this way, the bludgeoning of bodies makes for a rather dull and predictable protagonist. When there’s this much space being cleared for its marquee name, the lack of thought elsewhere becomes an issue quickly. A revenge plot dipped into a pool of malice, brooding spite and admittedly gorgeous cinematography, the film’s ambitions can be sniffed out from the opening shot. John Wick is very, very basic and its vignettes too easy to predict.

At the risk of contradicting myself, I’ll dare to say simplicity is a part of its appeal as well. Narrative clutter you will not find in these 140 minutes.

Co-directors David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (the latter performed stunts in the über-spoof comedy Kung Pow: Enter the Fist!) strip the number of players down to the bare necessities. Top-billed are essentially Wick, his dog (he at least should be, he does some damn fine acting) and a bunch of aggressive foreign enemies duking it out amidst a heavily-stylized urban jungle of decay and disillusion. There’s an almost romantic quality to the beauty in each frame though the jury’s still out on whether this is necessarily the best-looking martial arts film of the year. The choreography of the brutal martial arts sequences should contribute mightily to the likelihood of this receiving some sort of recognition, although The Raid 2: Berendal probably would like to have final say on that.

As a final grievance, while Keanu’s blandness suits the dejectedness of this character it’s the character that ultimately feels out of sync with his environs. He moves in and out of this place, as well as the second-rate story, with too much ease and nonchalance. He’s Robert McCall, only he might enjoy life a little more. John Wick’s a character packaged as a Neo look-alike — a neo-Neo, if you will — but there is one glaring difference between the Keanu the Wachowski’s basically invented before the turn of the millennium and the one we get in 2014. And that’s novelty.

Unfortunately Neo saw Zion first. The One will forever cast a great big shadow, unless something truly compelling is yet to come along still, of course. I thought this would be close, but no. No cigar. An at-times tongue-in-cheek throwback to Neo’s capabilities this may be, but it is frequently more generic and stilted than clever or nostalgic.

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2-5Recommendation: There are parts that work and a lot more that do not for “The Boogey Man” (those awkwardly inserted subtitles are hugely distracting, as another example.) As an original bit of film this fails but as an entertaining hour and a half at the movies you could do a lot worse. Fans of Keanu will more than likely be impressed with his commitment to the craft this time; there’s no denying he is more on his game here. Precisely why those expecting a story to match his intensity will be so exasperated.

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Yeah, I’m thinkin’ I’m back. . .”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

TBT: The Exorcist (1973)

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I have had this blog for three years now and still haven’t reviewed this?! This surprises me not just because of the infamy attached to this staple of 1970s American horror, but because it is one of my personal favorite horrors ever. Why haven’t I been yammering on about this already?! I blame blogger’s block. But here we are, on another Thursday in October, once again given the opportunity to redeem ourselves. And by ‘we’ I mean me. And by ‘ourselves’ I refer to my more demonic, possessed side. . . 

Today’s food for thought: The Exorcist. 

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Reinforcing the notion that Regan is a terrible name since: December 26, 1973

[DVD]

It’s a shame William Friedkin’s masterpiece of supernatural scares has only gone on to become one of the most parodied films of all time. A shame because the true power of Pazuzu’s icy grip on the throat of a young girl named Regan has so often been overlooked in favor of making fun of a head that spins and pukes at the same time, and that upside-down crab walk.

A shame because this movie used to terrify people and by rights it still should to this day. It’s also a shame, though, that the special effects used in this memorable production haven’t exactly aged well. Modern audiences perhaps should be forgiven for saying ‘no thanks’ when the exorcism phase of a horror movie seems a dime a dozen these days. Unfortunately by passing up on the opportunity to watch The Exorcist these folks are inadvertently missing out on an exorcism done the right way; the disturbing, nightmare-inducing way.

Disregarding the extraneous and inferior prequels and sequels it has spawned, the story centered around a young actress and her daughter’s quite literal descent into hell when Chris McNeil (Ellen Burstyn) began noticing rather bizarre behavioral changes occurring in her Regan. Growing pains associated with the onset of adolescence these were not. Poor Regan is soon revealed as the next incubator for a malevolent spirit.

Elsewhere, an archeologist/priest named Lankester Merrin (Max Von Sydow) has determined his experiences with fighting off demonic possession in the privacy of the possessed’s home are not days of the past. Following his discovery of a pennant reminiscent of the demon spirit Pazuzu, whom he had defeated years ago, Father Merrin is inevitably ensconced in a bizarre case in the Washington, D.C. area, courtesy of another priest having difficulty finding the faith after losing his elderly mother to an illness. Father Karras (Jason Miller) was the first to be contacted by a desperate mother seeking answers to an unexplainable situation. The case is of course, none other than Regan McNeil. She’s rather. . .sick. It’s been determined she needs an exorcism and needs the help of both priests.

If slow-burning horror is what it takes to get under your skin, then William Friedkin has had a movie waiting for you. The director may be knocked a little for applying a liberal amount of atmosphere creation for the first two-thirds of the film. However, the film is titled what it is for a reason, and on that ground alone it did not, does not and should not disappoint. “That scene” is an absolute staple of horror, its tension and emotional involvement hitting into the dark red part of the needle. I hate to reduce a film to a particular scene, but if there ever was a popular title to be reduced to one, it’s this. The beast’s vile behavior and the sounds it made have been difficult to shake for years.

The blame is on the era of filmmaking for a lack of better sound equipment, for surely some of the sound effects have come across more deranged and disturbing on the virtue that they are muffled, tinny and awkward excretions of noise, more aggravating than alarming. Remastered versions have helped improve these issues slightly but one can imagine this film’s potential made in today’s studios. It’s never enough to detract from the levels of nail-biting anxiety, though.

In some ways, perhaps it’s a good thing so many parodies of these moments exist. The more ADHD-prone viewers could use a little bit more of that 21st Century sense of hyperreality to make history more interesting. At least by watching Regan’s head spin right round, right round to Flo-Rida’s song they might be able to appreciate that whatever is being parodied was at one time so effective it spawned these humorous takes on it. Hey, entertainment is all relative anyway so I’m in favor of more people getting caught up to speed with this film’s iconic imagery and settings in any way they can.

It doesn’t get much better in terms of suspenseful exorcisms than this. In today’s horror, the act of exorcising almost deserves its own sub-genre. But there is something truly special about the way it all comes together under the supervision of William Friedkin; the acting, particularly on the part of a young Linda Blair as Regan is superb, urgent and emotional. It’s also an unusually vulgar performance from such a young performer. The pacing lags at the start but intensifies as the situation spirals out of control and into the world of the supernatural, while a chilling, somber tone is never quite escapable.

It’s a shame more people don’t regard The Exorcist as one of the scariest films of all time, because that’s exactly what I think this chilling, suspenseful and at times downright crude chronicling is, one of the scariest things I have ever tried watching.

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5-0Recommendation: Add this one to your queue if you consider yourself a fan of good horror. The pseudo high-concept horror. The horror that can wake you in the middle of the night in a fit of cold sweats as you’ve just dreamt of the vague outlining of a vengeful Pazuzu-like spirit. And fans of the director have undoubtedly had this one in their collection; they more likely have begun many of theirs with this very title. It’s hard to do with horror movies but this is one I have no problem with calling a must-see.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: In the six months following the film’s release, 14-year-old Linda Blair had to have bodyguards following her around in the wake of multiple death threats thrown her way by zealots claiming her character “glorified Satan.”

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Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Rob Lieber

Directed by: Miguel Arteta

As the ruthless Carmine Falcone once told Cillian Murphy’s Dr. Crane in a particularly insightful moment during Batman Begins, “some days, some days just go bad.”

Indeed it does for one Alexander Cooper and his extraordinarily ordinary family. The day before his twelfth birthday, he experiences a series of misfortunes that make for a very bad day. He starts off the day with gum in his hair, which he cuts out himself, then heads to school where more disaster awaits. Alexander finds a way to embarrass himself in front of the girl that he likes (as well as his entire science class) when he accidentally lights her notebook and half the classroom on fire. But the day’s not over yet. When he gets home he mishandles his baby brother’s pacifier and drops it down the garbage disposal, mangling it.

That night, as he blows out candles on the birthday treat he has made for himself, he wishes that the rest of his family — who were largely indifferent to his complaints at the dinner table earlier — would experience what it’s like to be him for just one day. He blows out the candles and the moon rises to take the sky, all cliché-like and shit.

Alexander and the . . . my goodness that’s an exhausting title . . . isn’t the kind of comedy most people flock to for the star talent, though the cast is no slouch. The Coopers are headed by hard-working mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner) who’s eying a promotion at the publishing company she’s been working with for some time; and recently laid-off dad, Ben (Steve Carell), who’s just landed an interview with a gaming company.

Beyond Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) there’s big brother Anthony (Logan Lerman. . . er, rather, Dylan Minnette) and Emily is the in-betweener sister (Kerris Dorsey). The aforementioned are amusing in equal measure, yet the real highlight of the show should be baby Trevor (there’s those adorable Vargas twins again, Elise and Zoey) who has a green mouth for most of the episode. That these people are naturally funny and these characters come across as good, decent people gives weight to the low-brow ambition of this adaptation of Judith Viorst’s 1972 novel of the same long-winded name.

Modern script aims at recapturing the essence of the short children’s book, and at only 81 minutes in length, one’s led to believe there isn’t a great deal of deviation in the narrative. Director Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids; Youth in Revolt) maximizes old-school slapstick appeal and takes a keen interest in the concept of Murphy’s Law. What can go wrong, will go wrong and for these poor people, quite literally everything does. The parents wake up past their alarms on the morning of Kelly’s promotion and Ben’s job interview; Emily wakes up with a fever and Anthony goes on to fail his driver’s test which he had hoped to pass so he could drive his date to the prom that night.

When the wheels really fall off the wagon is when the diminutive little audience is likely to find this film at its most fun and for the adult portion, at its most ridiculous. Clearly the screenwriters cherish the anarchistic set-up. It’s evident in the giddy energy the entire cast summons as they wake up the next day, direct recipients of Alexander and his wishes for them to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. But does it really work out that way for the lot of them? That’s why you should watch and find out for yourself.

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3-0Recommendation: If you’ve had a terrible day, here’s something you should see to get your perspective on. The movie is predictable, dumb fun. Of course there’ll be massive compromises made on the part of any parent willing to take their kids to see this as there isn’t much for more matured minds to latch onto here. That said, this is, simply put, good old-fashioned harmless fun. It features solid PG-rated performances from its A-list leads and even some decent ones from the young folk. I actually really enjoyed this silly farce, probably more than I should have as a late twenty-something.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 81 mins.

Quoted: “His face is . . . all green.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Fury

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Release: Friday, October 17, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: David Ayer

Directed by: David Ayer

There’s no such thing as a politically-neutral war film. That’s why David Ayer (End of Watch; Sabotage) should be praised for focusing not on the ideals and goals of war but rather its consequences. In his film there is a whole lot of loss and not a great coalition for reason. Few times before have camera angles remained so calm while also telling a thousand tales of the brutal atrocities of these violent outbursts in human history.

Death, destruction and psychological damage are bigger players in this hellish game than Brad Pitt could ever be. And this, it ought to be mentioned, is Brad Pitt operating at the top of his. There’s an almost journalistic approach taken by a director who has become comfortable with painting morally bankrupting scenes with the transparent brush of objective reality. Seeing a body being squashed by a platoon of tanks as they roll on down the road into the heart of Nazi Germany is just a fact of Fury. If we’re facing facts, we have to acknowledge there was a hand sticking out of the mud, that those weren’t just clothes being soiled and destroyed.

On the other hand, Fury is actually ironic when debating the merits of its Hollywood components. Brad Pitt is pretty. War is anything but. Make no mistake, though: as Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier, he’s the identifiable head of a body of strong-willed men who have been fighting the good fight for far too long. The film picks up on the defensive, as a very specific Sherman tank, affectionately labeled ‘Fury,’ is escaping intense aerial attacks after sitting like a duck amongst wreckage that doesn’t look too far removed from what we might imagine physical Hell to look like. It is 1945, a month before the official surrender of Nazi troops and at a time when Hitler was never more desperate. Opening title cards set the scene, and Ayer swings in with cameras immediately thrusting us onto the front lines.

German men, women and children are all armed and treated equally: they’re dispatched dispassionately by Collier’s men and then some. Collier is immediately backed by a ragtag group of good-old boys (plus a Mexican). We have Trini ‘Gordo’ Garcia (Michael Peña) as the primary tank driver; Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) as a loudmouthed sumbitch; and the film’s biggest surprise in Shia LeBeouf’s man of faith, Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan.

A film is almost always automatically bolstered by performers showing up to perform their duties, and that’s precisely what happens here. There isn’t a false note in any performance, and these aren’t exactly what you’d describe as easy or predictable characters. They are characters we have seen before, true, but they operate under virtually impossible circumstances, and with each passing day the odds stack up exponentially against them.

Fury is primarily concerned with showcasing the fortitude and gung-ho spirit of this unit as they face some of the heaviest opposition relative to the second Great War, patrolling muddied, pot-hole-filled country lanes and tiny ramshackle towns that otherwise would be quaint were it not for the hostility. It commands attention via an easy to follow, simple story that shadows this tank until it runs out of luck (and ammo). What begins as a platoon of at least five Shermans is whittled down to just one as the superior firepower and construction design (though to a lesser extent) of the German tanks prove to be too much for the Allied Forces.

Adding to the chaos is a fresh-faced 18(ish)-year-old typist, a Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who has been transferred to the Fury squad. Perhaps if there’s anything outstandingly cliché about this film it’s the hard time the preexisting members give the newcomer as he joins their ranks. Understandably, the kid is instantly overwhelmed and can’t face the reality of having to kill people on a daily basis. A great deal of the emotional heft exists as a result of the tension between an idealistic young lad who sees no good coming of harming Germans who have surrendered, and an experienced vet in Wardaddy who is concerned the newbie might get them all killed if he doesn’t toughen up.

Ayer pumps his film full of pain, rage, profound sadness. Cinematic liberties can be found every where you turn and you won’t have to look hard to find them, but buried deep within this familiar tale of fighting against impossible odds is a deeply disturbing, revolting truth. Men are not monsters before war. Men aren’t even monsters afterwards. But war is just another thing men are capable of. And the unrelentingly bleak Fury is, apparently, something that David Ayer and his fantastic company are capable of.

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4-5Recommendation: Grim and gory, Fury is undoubtedly a large-scale war film but the focus is much more personal than that. Ultimately this is about the individual efforts that helped shape the Allied Powers’ remarkable surge against a German army hell-bent on taking over the world. Ayer does an incredible job of setting atmosphere, elevating tension constantly and producing characters we can truly root for. I can’t imagine a single reason any fan of war films would be missing out on this one. That said, this isn’t one for the squeamish.

Rated: R

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Ideas are peaceful. History is violent.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

30-for-30: The Legend of Jimmy the Greek

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Release: Tuesday, November 10, 2009

[Netflix]

Directed by: Fritz Mitchell

I’m wondering who in this room would recognize the name Dimetrios Georgios Synodinos. I’d be willing to bet many more might if I then revealed this was merely the less-glamorous birth name given to the one and only Jimmy “the Greek” Snyder.

And if you’re still finding yourself asking, “Who?” — that’s perfectly okay. The controversial sportscaster was a fixture for those tuning in to CBS’s popular pre-game show, The NFL Today, during the mid-1970s and through the ’80s before he was (some say deservedly) fired for making off-the-cuff remarks about black athletes being superior to whites. Frankly, anyone not of the thinking that off-track betting and professional football go hand-in-hand probably don’t much care for The Greek’s bold approach to sports journalism.

Snyder should be considered as something of a man before his time, though to call him a visionary would be a little sensational. He was, in a sense, a niched journalist before the advent of social media gave rise to the bona fide niched market. If The Greek were alive today he’d easily have his own show, based solely on his curious, roughshod mannerisms and enthusiastic way of presenting information.

Not to mention the fact the man had trouble disenfranchising himself with the seedy underbelly of Las Vegas, where he learned how to build himself as an effective and respected gambler. He took the skills he acquired there and applied them to betting the odds of things happening (or not happening) during football season. As evidenced in seven-time Emmy Award-winning documentarian Fritz Mitchell’s contribution to 30-for-30, its a strategy that paid off for The Greek in more areas than just sports.

One of his more impressive gambles — the one used as a catalyst for the film’s dramatic unraveling — was a bet Jimmy made on the odds of incumbent President Harry Truman (very unpopular circa 1948) surviving against incoming presidential hopeful Tom Dewey. He based his hunches on the fact that of the many women he had polled that year, mustaches like the one worn by Dewey weren’t exactly a popular style. In one of the greatest presidential election upsets in history, The Greek seemingly validated his quirky intuition and market research.

The Greek went on to make several impressive bets that are elucidated throughout this hour-long documentary. Mitchell captures the man’s interesting life (and lifestyle) using a combination of interviews ranging in tone and objectivity — featuring the likes of Jimmy’s former colleagues, and some bigger names many are likely to recognize (Dan Rather) — and an overlaid narration created by someone who sounds quite like the deep booming voice Jimmy possessed. The film also includes several amusing clips taken exclusively from CBS and their affiliates.

The most rewarding aspect to this particular installment in the series is witnessing the varied reactions of those who knew him with appropriately varying degrees of intimacy, and hearing what it is they have to say now. Jimmy passed away in 1996, and many have coldly dismissed the event as a matter of inevitability. Death by broken heart. After his racist comments were made public, the great Greek never worked a job in news again. His spirit crushed, he would return to Vegas, tail between his legs and become lost to the machine of ill-advised gambling and scheming.

The heartbreaking documentary harps on the inevitable downfall of a once-proud journalist, in the process making a particular comment about the state of his funeral that left this reviewer cold but moreover sympathetic to a man who may not have made the best decisions in public, but one who knew what he loved and tried to die defending it. We of course all make mistakes, and for Jimmy it seemed the timing could not have been worse. This is the ultimate impact of Mitchell’s film.

Click here to read more 30-for-30 reviews.

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3-5Recommendation: Those who grew up watching CBS’s The NFL Today will get more of a kick out of this particular entry than those who did not. Fritz Mitchell makes the discussion lively and open to general interest viewers, as well, of course. This may be a pretty obscure docu but the entertainment/intrigue factor here have long-ranging implications in the world of sports. General sports fans surely will find something to be surprised by here, and if this is the first time meeting Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, what a welcoming it will be for you.

Rated: NR

Running Time: 60 mins.

[No trailer available. Sorry everyone.]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.espn.com

TBT: The Shining (1980)

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The first time I had heard this film title, I thought it was referring to something else entirely. And when I finally sat down to watch (whenever that first time was, I wish I could remember. . .) I came into the understanding rather quickly that yes indeed, this would be no comedy. No one would be getting pants-ed. No half-naked actors . .  . well. Not in the way you want them to be naked. *Shudder* That lady in the bathtub — thanks, but no thanks. What’s even more bizarre, in hindsight, is at the time I didn’t know at all what it was that I was getting myself into. Had no idea this film was a classic. Had no idea Jack Nicholson could be like. . .this. 

Today’s food for thought: The Shining

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Causing hotel keepers to go insane since: forever. . .and ever. . .and ever. . .

[DVD]

At the time I also had no idea there were deviations from Stephen King’s novel. Or that Mr. King himself wasn’t much of a fan of the finished film product. Of course I’ve paid no heed to the spirits that haunt this film reel for it is indeed one of the greatest of all time. That kind of high praise has for so long surrounded its director (I don’t know, some guy named Stanley Kubrick) that, to the uninitiated, it’s almost as if the center might collapse at any moment, like a doughnut jam-packed with a bit too much jelly.

At this point The Shining has almost become a mythological creature, existing now as a shrine to the frightening heights of Jack Nicholson’s madness and a podium before which Shelley Duvall may stand and proudly shout her name. I haven’t seen her in anything since nor have been so moved to do so, but in the same way I am not allowed to forget troubled writer Jack Torrance, I can’t scrub the pallid complexion of Wendy, his wife, from my brain. The horror has endured because these characters have, and for 34 years they have been thriving on the off-chance poor saps may make the mistake of revisiting The Overlook Hotel again on Netflix. Or, better yet: for newbies to take their first look around inside.

Me? I have spent the last several years successfully avoiding the interior of that place. It’s more like I’ve been running around in the maze out back, looking for some kind of way out of here. Yet, the imagery (and of course the quotes — “Here’s Johnny!!!”) has remained vivid and complex, mysterious but significant.

In need of extra income, Jack Torrance takes his family and secludes them in the beautiful but remote Overlook Hotel as the staff have been looking for a caretaker for the off-season, wintry months from December through May. This, Jack figured, would be as good a place as any to get focused on his writing. But the distractions soon become numerous and of an ominous variety, the source of which seems to be the Indian burial ground upon which the expansive hotel had been built. Over the coming days and weeks, Jack’s behavior increases in bizarreness and hostility, shrinking what was left of Wendy’s sense of self-preservation into a circle only she could fit into. And the Torrances’ only child is some kind of disturbed visionary who doesn’t ‘approve’ of the new surrounds. If that doesn’t promote cabin fever, what does?

Danny can’t exactly see dead people but he can sense the malevolent presences within this lonely building. His psychic abilities are referred to as ‘shining,’ and are also shared with certain members on staff, including the hotel chef — a man named Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers). Danny’s been able to foresee terrible things occurring here, but is he able to prevent them? Unfortunately that’s all out of his little, future blood-stained hands. Dad’s too blinded by his own frustrations as a failing writer (I can relate, dude) and thus is spending more time on his own, away from his wife whom he keeps having violent outbursts towards.

Stanley Kubrick on this occasion built suspense like nobody’s business, while simultaneously implementing some of the most recognizable set pieces you’re likely to find in horror. What we have here may not be everything that is presented in the novel. In fact a lot has changed, apparently. But what is used is also hellishly effective: the torrent of blood escaping the elevators; retro, 70s-style carpeting; hedge mazes, that also double as escape routes, by the way; the fire ax going through a bedroom door.

If blood and guts don’t creep you out, the stifling atmosphere had a better chance of chilling your internal body temperature by a few degrees. The Shining simultaneously dwelled upon and benefitted from the dress of decay. Everything from the abandoned space, to the season in which these disturbing transformations occur helped impress upon us that here is a family with no way of ridding themselves of harm. Of grisly, twisted and unpredictable violence.

If Jack were successful in completing just whatever it was he had committed to writing — a book, a collection of poems, perhaps? — I can only provide speculation as to how his real-life ending might have fit. A little bit bloodier? No doubt. More predictable? Eh, maybe. If all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy, the more sane of us have been left wondering what this man would be like if left without that typewriter of his. At least here, he was temporarily distracted.

The beauty in Kubrick’s adaptation, accurate or not, has been the ability for audiences to imagine themselves in such a situation and what they would do. The supernatural forces driving former residents mad was a concept abstract and terrifying enough for two different auteurs — one a writer and another a filmmaker — to base stories off of and yet come away with two different experiences, both arguably equally successful. That’s damn impressive and a true testament to the power of well-conceived horror.

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5-0Recommendation: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is — and this is a boring way to put it, I know — a true classic. It not only stands the test of time, it almost becomes scarier each time you revisit it. Something else just keeps popping up, some detail you never noticed before. On that basis alone, if you haven’t still seen this movie I urge you to do so pronto. If you are a horror buff, I think we’re done here. If you’re squeamish, you should watch this anyway. Just so you’re not so squeamish in other, lesser horrors. Thicken that skin!

Rated: R

Running Time: 144 mins.

TBTrivia: A tale of horrifying edits. Apparently the original script was edited so many times it began to irritate Jack. It got to a point where he’d only read the new pages that were added to the script daily. He later cited the role as one of the toughest he’s ever undertaken.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

The Judge

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Release: Friday, October 10, 2014

[Theater]

Written by: Nick Schenk; Bill Dubuque 

Directed by: David Dobkin

The honorable David Dobkin, who’s responsible for giving the world Wedding Crashers, presides over his very first drama and makes a relatively strong case for his continued exploration outside his comfort zone.

Despite narrative clutter and a doggedly long runtime (almost two and a half hours), which is perhaps more indicative of Dobkin’s awe over the star talent amassed in his courtroom (who else gets to say they have three epic Bob’s working for them on the same project: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall and Billy Bob Thornton?) than his ability to trim the fat from his scenes, The Judge is a worthwhile procession featuring performances that do nothing but exceed expectations.

At its core and simultaneously where the film reel shows its most serious signs of wear and tear, this is a tale of tough love — a power struggle between a father and son who have lost touch and any interest in reconnecting. Hank Palmer (Downey Jr.), a successful Chicago lawyer, returns to his hometown of Carlinville, Indiana for his mother’s funeral. He and his father, the powerful and widely-respected Judge Joe Palmer (Duvall), can barely look one another in the eye and after 20 years it’s all the two can muster to force an awkward handshake. Given the actors involved, the personal tension is inherently intriguing and, presumably, complex. They become characters we’re instantly invested in.

We are less invested in the roughly 30-40 minutes used in setting up Hank’s backstory and what kind of life he’s leaving behind in Chicago to deal with his family — one of luxury made less alluring by what certainly appears to be a failing marriage. We’re not asking too much by wanting to skip to the part where Iron Man gets to square off in court with his bull-headed father, now, are we? Does that overlook the point of having Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Vera Farmiga as strong supporting characters who help illustrate what it is that Hank left behind all those years ago?

Maybe a little.

Contributing to the excess is the fact that there are one too many peripheral characters that Dobkin clearly wants to develop so as to not leave them as secondary thoughts. Unfortunately by the time the denouement hits, it itself has become a secondary thought, sidelined by over-explained relationships that truthfully don’t have anything unique about them. It gets to a point we almost forget the real reason we’re here: not just to experience the power of two heavyweight actors within a courtroom — which, by the way, is a very interesting setting in which to try and contain the personality of one Bob Downey Jr. This is, after all, technically a crime drama. There must be plot beyond seeing how well the actors come together as judge, jury and executioner.

For what it’s worth, thanks to the insertion of Billy Bob Thornton as a bloodthirsty lawyer on behalf of the plaintiff, the drama on the floor crackles with intensity and emotion. As Dwight Dickham, Thornton is once again too good at what he does. He stands out from the local crowd as obviously as Downey’s Hank Palmer who, with a minor degree of reluctance, represents his father in the wake of a disconcerting discovery at their residence — one involving bloodstains found on his old garage-bound jalopy that he has been appearing to cover up. Hank (and to a lesser extent his brothers) immediately know what this finding will mean if his dad has to appear in court.

Yes, indeed — that old trick. The unlikely bond forming in the 11th hour, then the series of unexplained circumstances testing the durability of the new bond. I wouldn’t be so irritated by the writing had this involved quite literally any other cast; these actors are too good to be pigeonholed into predictable trajectories. The guy playing Hank Palmer, for one, is a rather unpredictable actor but even he can’t escape the shackles of cliched character development.

It ain’t all bad, though.

The emotions run high and there are several moments in which time seems to come to a stand-still as dialogue flows forth freely, on occasion exploding as if released from a fire hydrant. Legal mumbo-jumbo isn’t even an issue here, which is a compliment that ought to be paid the screenwriters. Nick Shenk and Bill Dubuque understand they needn’t alienate an audience with technical jargon when there’s already enough beating around the bush going on.)

Come the end credits it’s difficult to shake the feeling The Judge could have banged its gavel a little more. . .creatively.

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2-5Recommendation: This guy may seem to be ruling slightly harsh on this film but this is mostly due to those pesky expectation levels again. While what this cast bring to the table is worth the price of admission, I can’t say the same about a rather bloated narrative that almost threatens to undermine a Robert Downey Jr. who may never have worked so hard for a paycheck. He alone is enough to still warrant a recommendation for seeing this in theaters. I just wouldn’t recommend going in expecting a whole lot more than a solid episode of Law & Order with A-list names involved though.

Rated: R

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “My father is a lot of unpleasant things, but murderer is not one of them.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Franco Files #9

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Welcome to October, and the ninth edition of The Franco Files! I suppose now would be a good time to make the announcement. I have decided that I will officially end this thread in December, effectively concluding this feature as we currently know it with 11 entries on December 10. I would continue into next year, but there are a few reasons I’d like to bring this to an end.

First and foremost, I have covered a good bit of ground with James Franco already. At this point I think most of the entries are going to be turning towards discussing new roles (there are a few old ones I would have probably overlooked), so I think it’d be best to keep this as a look back at what he’s done, rather than a constant update on his new stuff. There are regular reviews for that. 🙂 Secondly, there are too many other actors/actresses I would like to shine a spotlight on as well so unfortunately James’ time in the light must come to an end. Third, I think finishing this particular thread in December just makes the most sense. My only regret is not starting it off in January, so that way I would have had a full year dedicated to this. Still, 11 months ain’t bad.

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Francophile #9: Will Rodman, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Drama/Sci-fi

Character Profile: Will Rodman is a scientist at the Gen-Sys labs, five years into a project aimed at curing Alzheimer’s, which his father tragically is succumbing to. He’s a hard-working, good man whose work ethic dictates decency, even if his experiment would ultimately lead to a global catastrophe in the form of the simian flu (code-named ALZ-112 in the lab). Under Rodman’s direction, an ape imported from Africa is injected with the virus to ascertain if the brain really does heal itself. When it’s later discovered in another ape — a baby chimp Will takes home — to actually do just that, plus generate increased levels of intelligence and awareness, the next logical step is to apply it to the human brain. Will concocts a stronger version of the 112 formula and labels it 113, and then injects his increasingly despondent father with it, with disastrous consequences. With Will there are many questionable tactics used but ultimately, and given everything that goes down in Rise of the Planet of the Apes‘ brilliant sequel, of course we know that he didn’t mean for any of this to happen. As his bond with Caesar (the baby chimp he saved from death at the hands of scientists wanting to shut down the experiment at Gen-Sys) matures and evolves to the point of a heartbreak, we know this to be true.

If you lose Franco, the film loses: the reason why we care about Caesar in this film. Mr. Franco puts in some hard work to effect a strong relationship forged between man and ape, and in writing that sounds ridiculous but on-screen Franco, man oh man does he sell it. While it really is more about how Andy Serkis is able to capture our hearts that makes the film such a unique experience (that and the top-grade CGI), the basis for Caesar’s ultimate trajectory stems from how he was treated before he truly knew what and who he was. We have to thank Franco for giving Will Rodman enough gravitas to care about him as well as the ape. 

Out of Character: “While we’re acting, [Andy]’s not in an ape suit, he’s in these gray pajama-looking things with censors all over his body and these dots on his face that will help the effects team read his expressions on the computer, so that everything that Andy is doing is captured. So you would think that acting opposite someone like that and trying to think of them as a chimpanzee would be difficult. But, from the first scene we had together on, it[s] easy, because Andy is so good at the behavior and he’s so connected to what he’s doing and — you know, the other actors — that he allows my imagination to take over, and I really can treat him as if he were a chimpanzee.”

Rate the Performance (relative to his other work):

3-5


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Photo credits: http://www.joelederer.com 

TBT: Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

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Feeling in a bit of a paranoid mood? Then you’ll love what’s on offer for today’s Throwback Thursday segment! And you know what they say about paranoia, right? Well . . . actually, what . . . what do they say? I’m not sure if they say anything about it. Is there an expression that “they” say? Just who are “they,” anyway??! What the hell is going on? That’s a good question. So I’ll just cut right to the chase: gimme my baby back! 

Today’s food for thought: Rosemary’s Baby

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Rocking the cradle since: June 12, 1968

[Netflix]

My introduction to the filmography of one Roman Polanski has sent shivers down my spine. Fourteen hours later I’ve been able to get rid of them.

Rosemary’s Baby is a trip. Not a vacation; a trip. A veritable hallucinogenic as intoxicatingly cinematic as it is a tutorial on how to create atmospheric suspense and feelings of dread and paranoia by using real-world settings and little else. One of the most prolific filmmakers of all-time — having crafted works in Britain, France, Poland and the United States — Polanski’s psychological horror detailing a young housewife’s concerns about strange circumstances surrounding her pregnancy remains to this day a nightmarish descent into paranoia and paralyzing fear.

Though culture and tradition in the nearly 50 years since its release have certainly changed, the emotional core of the film harps on notes that ring true as ever. In this ridiculously effective thriller, a nightmare for the average pregnant woman is only the beginning. Mia Farrow is Rosemary Woodhouse, wife of struggling actor Guy Woodhouse (John Cassavetes) who is at first reluctant to move into what was once a single-unit apartment now subdivided into thinly-walled quarters within a ramshackle building known as the Bramford. Rosemary so badly wants this apartment in Manhattan that he relents.

The ensuing weeks and months the Woodhouses are ingratiated by their next-door-neighbors, an elderly couple who take a very keen interest in Rosemary’s desire to have a child. Following what can only be described as a harrowing dream sequence you don’t really want to relive, she indeed becomes pregnant. She and Guy are congratulated by Minnie and Roman Castevet (Ruth Gordon and Sidney Blackmur) and promptly given all kinds of advice on how to take care of the pregnancy.

The fascination begins when we see Guy and Rosemary’s reactions to the — er, hospitality start to diverge; while Guy forms a bond with the oddball Roman who has good stories to tell, Rosemary becomes increasingly off-put by the prying eyes of a very creepy Minnie. Clearly I wasn’t around back then, but I can still feel the impact of this supporting performance and would have to agree with the Oscar she received. Gordon is positively chilling and Blackmur supports more than significantly.

I would be lying if I said I was won over by Farrow’s performance, but on a strictly objective level (because that’s what we are all about here at Digital Shortbread. . . . . . ) she is a strong character whose determination and horrific circumstances render her irreplaceable. (To that end, I am looking forward to other performances from her.)

Rosemary’s Baby is ruthlessly tense and masterfully chopped up into segments that fuse together like the night into day. Natural transitions yield great expanses of time and we begin to learn the true scale of Rosemary’s problems. Put into simple terms, this is a poor woman’s descent into hell as her pregnancy consumes her very existence. In 2014 the confronting nature of this particular pregnancy still hits hard, without the film ever digressing into a tug-of-war for or against abortion. There are, however, whispers of those concerns buried deep within this truly haunting tale. The film happens to be capped off by one of the best and most unexpected endings I have ever seen.

For all the above reasons and a few more, I find this to be a true masterpiece of cinema.

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4-5Recommendation: Roman Polanski’s psychological thriller is brilliantly directed, beautifully and eerily shot, incredibly scored and tremendously effective as well as engrossing. Clocking in at well over two hours, it’s a substantial horror installment. But the elite-level performances — in particular, Farrow and Gordon — coupled with an alarmingly convincing story make the time fly by. I highly, highly recommend getting your mitts on this one if you have the thing sitting there right in front of you on Netflix like I did. I am so thrilled I checked this out. Also, let me recommend Netflix.

Rated: R

Running Time: 136 mins.

TBTrivia: Mia Farrow was actually eating raw liver in that scene. Mmm, bon appétit! 

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Photo credits: http://www.pinterest.com; http://www.athenacinema.com